To many of us who were present at the time and have lived to see the fallout thereof, 20 February 1959 is a “day that lives in infamy” because thereafter Canadian defence research and development changed forever. Not since has this country had the national resolve to undertake a project of this magnitude and technical risk.
Therefore this anniversary is an appropriate occasion to look back to see what happened to the wonderful team that produced the Avro Arrow. As is well known, many “Avroites” went south to the United States where they took leading roles in the U.S. manned spaceflight program that was then just getting underway. Their accomplishments are chronicled in Chris Gainor’s 2001 book, “Arrows to the Moon: Avro’s Engineers and the Space Race”. (Full citation below.)
As preamble, it is worth noting that the recruitment of Canadians for the space program was not just a fortuitous accident. What does not seem to be common knowledge is that senior United States officials knew exactly what was happening at Avro Aircraft; they had been providing technical support and program support for years. So the quality of the work and the quality of the people were well known.
Nevertheless, Jim Chamberlain and Bob Lindley were key figures in this process. They helped the NASA people select the engineers to be interviewed and then helped expedite their recruitment and immigration to the United States. This happened with unprecedented speed because NASA was indeed desperate for senior engineers and engineering management.
Seventeen of the thirty-seven were born and raised in Canada. The rest emigrated from the United Kingdom, reflecting the fact that A.V. Roe Canada was a subsidiary of Hawker-Siddeley, a British company. (We must also remember that it was standard practise in those days for Canadian aerospace companies to recruit in England; they found a receptive audience among British engineers seeking to escape the privations of life in post-war England.)
With this background, this book is, in fact, a quite detailed history of the American manned spaceflight program, from Mercury to the space station, as seen through the eyes of the Canadians who participated. But in the process of – rightly – concentrating on the Canadians, the dramatic thread is somewhat downplayed. All of the major incidents are reported, such as the Apollo 1 fire and the Apollo 13 rescue, but the fear and uncertainty these incidents engendered does not always come through.
None of the Canadians were promoted to politically-visible top management positions, but several, notably Jim Chamberlain, Owen Maynard and John Hodge, occupied positions only one or two levels down and played vital roles in the conception and execution of the program. Maynard and Hodge, along with many others, were interviewed extensively for this book, but Chamberlain speaks only through his accomplishments and the admiring words of others: he died of a heart attack in 1981.
As one reads through the book, one of the things that really comes through is the astonishing amount of new technology and new system concepts that had to be developed from scratch. For the first time, scientists and engineers were forced to think seriously in global terms rather than in piecemeal extensions of concepts that worked nationally. And it is freely acknowledged that the Canadians made major contributions to these concepts and their realization.
A most fascinating book. But as one reads through it, one cannot help but be struck by the calibre of the technical and management talent that Canada lost as a result of the cancellation of the Avro Arrow project, by “What might have been.” Was the cancellation of the Arrow necessary? My personal view is that it was a necessary decision at the time, but the manner in which the project was terminated is a blot on our history from which this country has never recovered.
“Arrows to the Moon: Avro’s Engineers and the Space Race”
Apogee Books, an imprint of Collector’s Guide Publishing, Burlington, Ontario, 2001
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