The only thing that kept Canada from beating the U.S. to a jet airliner was Canada.
- By Graham Chandler
- Air & Space magazine, March 2009
Collage: Ted lopez; photographs and newspapers courtesy Mabel Baker family, George Evans, Avro of Canada
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TCA expressed cautious interest in the Jetliner. But the airline had enough on its plate with getting its new North Star (a Canadian variant of the Douglas C-54/DC-4/DC-6 with Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 engines) into service and making sure TCA could fill the seats.
“The reality was that the high traffic levels of the early 1940s were artificially inflated by wartime demands, and Canadians were not yet reconciled to flying as the normal way of getting from place to place,” says Jonathan Vance, Canada Research Chair in History at the University of Western Ontario. As a result, the airline struggled with budget deficits in the postwar years. “When it came time to upgrade the fleet, there was a fundamental question: Do you do it with a supposedly better version of an aircraft that the traveling public is already familiar with—i.e., a prop-driven aircraft—or do you do it with something new and different? If I had been with TCA at the time, I would have avoided jet technology.”
In 1948, TCA’s new president Gordon McGregor did just that: Floyd’s book reports that at a meeting shortly after his appointment, McGregor said he didn’t want the airline to be the first in North America to operate a jet transport. Management began to look for escapes: Since few Canadian airports had the new Instrument Landing Systems that would enable the new aircraft to land, TCA pointed out that the Jetliner would require considerably higher fuel reserves to get to those airports with the necessary equipment. TCA also demanded more stringent specifications, like a 500-mph cruising speed, which would have required a complete redesign to accommodate a swept wing, like the Comet had. “It would have been easier to convert a cow into a crocodile than it would have been to incorporate all TCA’s new ‘suggestions’ into the C102 design,” writes Floyd, who points out that unlike the long-range Comet, the Jetliner was optimized for short- to medium-length routes and the ability to operate from shorter runways.
As TCA dithered, Floyd looked for customers elsewhere, especially south of the border, where airlines traditionally worked closely with designers. But in 1947, U.S. airplane manufacturers Douglas, Lockheed, Martin, Convair, and Boeing all posted financial losses and were preoccupied with new piston designs like the DC-6, Constellation, Martinliner, Convairliner, and Stratocruiser. Years later, Boeing unveiled its 707 prototype, heralding a new jet intended for longer-range, intercontinental travel. The Avro Jetliner, by contrast, had been designed as a regional jet. Still, U.S. interest in Avro’s work was high. “In the Avro XC-102, the Dominion of Canada has something brand new in the commercial transport field—a 100 percent jet-powered design with an economical cruising speed 100 mph faster than the newest American types,” reported Aviation Week magazine on November 1, 1948.
So Floyd and his team pressed on, dedicated to making the Jetliner a success. Despite the loss of key staff to the CF-100 program, morale at Avro was soaring. Engineers, draftsmen, and technicians worked on the project well into the nights, and in the summer of 1949, the Jetliner flew without a hitch. Flight testing went smoothly into the fall.
Soon a second prototype was under construction. But with no firm customer base, what was there to design to? Sales pitches to the United States were stepped up, as “the American market is wide open” for the jetliner, Delos W. Rentzel of the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Administration told Canada’s national news magazine, Maclean’s, in late 1949.
On March 10, 1950, the Jetliner, along with the new CF-100, was flown to Ottawa to show off to government officials, military leaders, and dignitaries. The show was impressive; Toronto’s Globe and Mail reported “the big Jetliner’s performance evoked whistles of amazement.”
To keep the ball rolling, Avro invited TCA’s McGregor along on a flashy marketing and demo trip to New York. On April 18, the Jetliner made what was probably the most widely publicized airliner flight in North American history: leaving Toronto and blowing into New York City 59 minutes later. Scores of newspapers, including the New York Times, carried headlines like “Canadian Jet Liner Makes Air History” and “Jet Airliner Cuts Flying Time in Half.” Recognizing Canada’s huge jump on U.S. airline manufacturers, some U.S. newspapers blasted the lagging state of the American industry.