Woe Canada

The only thing that kept Canada from beating the U.S. to a jet airliner was Canada.

Even though the rugged airplane had survived an emergency nosewheel landing on its second test fight, the Jetliner’s days were numbered. Not even interest from Howard Hughes (opposite, top) was enough to save it. Instead, Avro ramped up production of its CF-100 fighters (left). (Collage: Ted lopez; photographs and newspapers courtesy Mabel Baker family, George Evans, Avro of Canada)
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But the priority both nations put on building warplanes was leading to the Jetliner’s demise.

One hundred years agO, Clarence Decatur Howe left the land his ancestors settled in the 1630s near Waltham, Massachusetts, and crossed the Canadian border to take his first job: professor of civil engineering at Halifax’s Dalhousie University. By 1935, he was a member of Parliament, and soon after rose to become Canada’s wartime Minister of Munitions and Supply. A go-getter, he was dubbed in 1947 “our new dictator” by an opposition member when Howe got a new cabinet post as the country’s first Minister of Transport. From there, he would drive the final nails in the Jetliner’s coffin.

Although Howe oversaw TCA, he never warmed to the Jetliner. With the overwhelming CF-100 commitment, he ordered Avro to withdraw the airliner from consideration by National, end promotions to other U.S. airlines, and stop work on a second aircraft. Floyd continued courting U.S. Air Force interest, and had the jet flown to the Wright Air Development Center for a thorough trial by Air Force engineers, pilots, bombardiers, and maintenance crews. A month later, they submitted a report card: eminently suitable as a multi-jet-engine trainer for pilots and bombardiers, with a bonus idea—air refueling tanker. Speas heard from the sales manager for the Allison division of General Motors, who said the Air Force told him it had put aside $20 million to buy 20 Jetliners; according to Floyd’s book, the U.S. Navy was also interested.

But back home at Malton, all was not so rosy. The second CF-100 prototype had crashed, and production of the fighter and its engines was way behind schedule. Avro management continued to shift workers from the jetliner to the fighter program, and transferred Floyd’s chief aerodynamicist to a new, secret, all-weather, supersonic interceptor project to replace the CF-100; the interceptor would evolve into the Arrow. Floyd’s team didn’t even have the manpower to engineer the installation of the Allison J33 engines the Air Force wanted. Worse, Floyd himself was asked to leave the Jetliner project to troubleshoot the fighter production line—“not the happiest period of my career,” he wrote. Twisting the knife was a visit to the plant by Howe, who told Floyd, “I suggest you forget that airplane and put your energy into getting the CF-100s out.” Soon afterward, a senior civil servant named Crawford Gordon, who had worked under Howe, was made Avro’s president.

Ironically, it was the CF-100 work that spawned a potential revival for the Jetliner. Avro was proposing to use the

Hughes MG2 fire control system for the Mark IV version of the CF-100. In a 2005 interview, Floyd told me: “Crawford Gordon got the idea that Howard Hughes is good for new projects, and so why don’t we get him interested in the Jetliner?” The idea was that the Jetliner would make a good flying testbed for the fighter program. “The Jetliner was nearly as fast as a CF-100, so we could put all the equipment in there and try it out,” Floyd said. Hughes was well aware of the record-breaking Jetliner—his airline TWA had already evaluated it, and he was anxious to fly it.

So on April 7, 1952, the Jetliner departed Malton for Culver City, California. Among those on board were Floyd, who brought along reams of Jetliner drawings, and chief test pilot Don Rogers. After stops for fuel in Chicago and Denver, the crew arrived at Hughes’ airfield the following afternoon. The next day, the billionaire arranged to meet them at their airplane.

“My first impression was: Here was someone who was almost, what shall we say, a phantom,” Floyd told me. “He drove up in a car, and stayed in the car about two hours talking to somebody.” Finally the car door opened and Hughes walked over to meet the team. He had a quick look inside, and seemed especially interested in the cockpit layout.

The next day, Hughes wanted to fly. Rogers sat him in the copilot’s seat. “He didn’t say very much,” Rogers told me in a 2005 interview. “He just took the ride in the right-hand seat for a few circuits, then I put him in the left seat for a few circuits.” Rogers recounted that Hughes was a fast learner, very careful, and applied just the right inputs to the Jetliner’s flight controls. He remembered Hughes tended to make his approaches faster than necessary, in order to “feel” the airplane. The entrepreneur had a cavalier disregard for flight plans and radio instructions. “Flight plans weren’t mandatory in those days,” Rogers said. “He’d just take off on his own private strip and I’d be searching the sky very carefully for other aircraft.”

After they landed, Hughes immediately ordered the Jetliner parked on the far side of his airfield, under a tree with guards around it. No one else was allowed near it. “His pilots never did get to fly the airplane,” Rogers said. Besides wanting to feel how the airplane performed,

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