After search crews discovered a test model of the Avro Arrow last week, expedition leaders expect to find the eight remaining models said to be on the floor of Lake Ontario in the coming weeks.
The Arrow was Canada’s cutting-edge fighter jet that was suddenly and controversially scrapped in 1959.
“One of the more important parts of finding the first plane is it now allows us to pivot from that location to go look for the others because we know they would have fallen in the same area,” said expedition leader John Burzynski, CEO of Osisko Mining and head of OEX Recovery Group.
Burzynski is the driving force behind the Raise the Arrow campaign, an expedition led by OEX Recovery Group, a group of mining explorers who set out to uncover the remaining artifacts of what was hailed as a technological aviation breakthrough for its time.
Test flights of the Avro Arrow were launched from 1954 and 1957 into the east part of Lake Ontario, and for the last three decades explorers have been trying to find the models but with no success.
But with the help of Royal Canadian Air Force history director Dr. Richard Mayne, who pored over secret archives to help narrow the search area, Burzynski’s group was able to locate the first of the nine test models. High-resolution photos of the model, which was covered in zebra mussels, were released on Sept. 8.
“This is a huge task by any means and to provide Canadians an opportunity to reconnect with the Avro Arrow in a meaningful way is just absolutely outstanding,” said Mayne, a member of the OEX Recovery Group.
Considering the Avro Arrow was lauded as Canada’s most significant aviation program which pushed the country’s aviation industry up with the best in the world, Canadians were shocked when it was suddenly shut down by the Diefenbaker government and all of the supersonic fighter jets, blueprints, and parts destroyed.
“It’s part of the reason that this story lives on, because of the sudden closure after making something so innovative,” Burzynski said. “There was almost an intent to erase the fact that the Arrow ever existed by the government of the day, which is what makes it linger and really stay in the Canadian psyche.”
Much speculation surrounds the cancelling of the Arrow, but most conclude it was due to the enormous costs involved.
Historians say the government may also have thought of the project as redundant to defend against the Soviet Union’s Sputnik, which was rolled out at the same time. The Sputnik was the forerunner of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, something a fighter jet couldn’t stand up against.
‘Needle in a haystack of needles’
The search is still in its early phase—the team has covered just 15 percent of the grid mapped out by Mayne, Burzynski said. Once more test models are discovered, the next step will be some investigative dives to test the models’ structural integrity and then start conservation work before bringing them to the surface, where the biomass and zebra mussels will be removed.
Scarlett Janusas, lead archaeologist on the project, said the conservation work is the most expensive part of the program, so only two of the nine models will be raised from the lake floor.
She said she expects test models won’t be raised until next spring, although the crews will work full-time for about the next two weeks to continue surveying and conducting reconnaissance missions. The project will slow down at the end of September due to the extreme weather the area is known for.
“Where we are located it was actually called the Marysburgh vortex, similar to the Bermuda Triangle, because it’s really bad for ships and everything else. The winds are bad,” Janusas said.
Searching for the models is “like searching for a needle in a haystack of needles,” Burzynski said, because at the bottom of that area of Lake Ontario lies various sunken ships, hundreds of surface-to-air missiles, and test rockets.
He said the discovery wouldn’t have happened without the contribution of Newfoundland-based Kraken Sonar Systems, another Canadian company leading in innovation, like Avro Canada. Kraken’s SonarFish, a remotely operated vehicle using state-of-the-art underwater sonar imaging, is being used to locate the test models.
“There are parallels to the Avro story—they’ve developed new, cutting-edge sonar.”
Burzynski said the team members feel the recovery effort is worth it as they are not only uncovering an important part of Canadian history, but also honouring the commitment of the nearly 30,000 Canadians working directly and indirectly on the Avro Arrow project who lost their jobs. Aviation was Canada’s third largest industry at the time.
“The more we work on this program, the more I am impressed with those who worked on the Avro Arrow. Their technical achievement was tremendous, and this is really a tribute to them,” he said.
Next year is the 60th anniversary of the launching of the Avro Arrow, and Burzynski said he expects the test models will be on display for Canadians to see as early as next fall at both the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa and the National Air Force Museum of Canada in Trenton.
Jared Gnam is a freelance reporter based in Vancouver. He broke into the world of journalism covering the Stanley Cup Riot in 2011.