Historicist: Soaring Into the Jet Age
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Historicist: Soaring Into the Jet Age

How Avro Canada's Jetliner almost ushered in the age of passenger jet travel in 1949.

Canada Post stamp depicting the Avro Canada C 102 Jetliner, 1981, from Library and Archives Canada

Canada Post stamp depicting the Avro Canada C-102 Jetliner, 1981, from Library and Archives Canada.

At the Malton Airport on August 10, 1949, the C-102 Jetliner took to the sky for the first time. Designed and built in Toronto by Avro Canada, the Jetliner was North America’s first jet-powered passenger plane.

Despite the apparent enthusiasm of the airline industry, the project was scrapped just a few years later at the insistence of a Canadian government that wanted Avro focused on the country’s Cold War military needs. Instead of the Jetliner ushering in a new age of civil aviation with Canada at the technological forefront, Boeing’s 707, developed years behind Avro’s aircraft, became the first passenger jet widely used in the airline industry.

2013 08 10 e000761523 350At the end of the Second World War, British aircraft manufacturer A.V. Roe purchased the Victory Aircraft plant in Malton. Shifting focus to civilian transportation, the new company, Avro Canada, put an emphasis on made-in-Canada aeronautical innovation.

“It was a heady place to work,” recalled Jim Floyd, a British-born engineer that joined Avro Canada in early 1946. “It was a brand-new company. There were so many exciting things going on there.”

(Left: Offices of Victory Aircraft Ltd. in Malton, July 1943, from Library and Archives Canada.)

Floyd’s design team soon began technical work on a jet-powered passenger plane for Trans Canada Airlines (TCA)—an especially ambitious undertaking, since the handful of jet-powered aircraft then in operation were all military fighters and bombers. Intending the new aircraft for service on middle-range regional routes, the airline wanted it to be capable of cruising at 425 m.p.h. with a 1,200-mile range, but Floyd’s team sought to exceed the TCA specs.

The designs for Avro Canada’s C-102 Jetliner, as the plane became known, originally called for two AJ65 Avon engines, which were Rolls-Royce’s cutting-edge jet engines. But Floyd’s team was sent back to the drawing board when the British Air Ministry decided the Avon engines would be restricted to military use. The Jetliner’s airframe was wholly redesigned to accommodate four Rolls-Royce Derwent V engines. Although they were highly reliable alternatives, the Derwents also were heavier, less powerful, and consumed more fuel, affecting the Jetliner’s proposed range.

C 102 Jetliner from Flight (January 5, 1950)

C-102 Jetliner from Flight (January 5, 1950).

The TCA’s contract with Avro Canada had promised the airline a fixed price for each Jetliner, forcing the manufacturer to assume all financial risks associated with new aircraft development. In 1947, when Avro Canada informed TCA that it could no longer meet the fixed price, the airline backed out of the deal. In addition to the changing specs and costs, the TCA was wary about being the first in the world to operate jet-powered passenger airliners. Furthermore, passenger traffic had not increased as TCA had anticipated, and its new fleet of prop-driven Canadair North Stars appeared suitable for their foreseeable needs.

Crossing their fingers that a market for the Jetliner would emerge if the plane proved itself, Avro Canada’s management pressed on with the aircraft’s development and the construction of a prototype, with the assistance of some federal government subsidies.

By mid-summer 1949, just 25 months after design on the C-102 began, a prototype Jetliner was ready for formal testing. It was beaten to the sky, however, by the de Havilland Comet—a passenger jet then under development in Britain for use on transcontinental routes—which made its maiden flight on July 27. Just 13 days later, the Jetliner became the first commercial jet plane in North America. “In no time flat we had built a world-beating airplane,” Floyd told told Bruce Campion-Smith of the Toronto Star (August 11, 1994). “We just missed being first in the world.”

Avro Canada C 102 Jetliner, c  1950, from Wikimedia Commons

Avro Canada C-102 Jetliner, c. 1950, from Wikimedia Commons.

In early August, the temperature hovered near 37 degrees, causing the Jetliner’s tires to blow numerous times during taxi tests and and “hop” tests on the runway in the days prior to her first flight. Amid serious debate whether to postpone further tests until the sweltering weather broke, Jimmy Orrell, the chief test pilot, grew increasingly impatient. The next time he took the Jetliner down the runway, he protested, he’d take her up and “have done with it.” And so, shortly after lunch on August 10, Orrell throttled up for takeoff—the then-unfamiliar jet engine screech growing louder—and moments later, the Jetliner was in the air. Joining Orrell as flight crew were co-pilot Don Rogers, and flight engineer Bill Baker.

Climbing to 500 feet, he brought her over the cheering ground crew and observers near the airfield. Although Orrell never pushed the aircraft to its performance limits, he climbed to 8,000 feet and again to 13,000 feet over the course of an hour-long flight. An RCAF bomber, sent up to observe and photograph the Jetliner’s tests, had difficulty keeping up. Orrell had to throttle back just to keep the bomber in sight.

When Orrell landed the Jetliner in a fierce crosswind and taxied to the dispersal point, the technicians on the airfield cheered the crew’s return. In the company newsletter Avro News, Orrell described the Jetliner’s first flight: “Well, she was the perfect lady and gave us a very fine flight. Smooth—as smooth as a surface plate. Noise—we could talk to each other in ordinary voices, used the loudspeaker with the volume turned down instead of headphones. The controls and services operated just as they should. On this first flight we could not answer all the questions, as you can well imagine, we were fully occupied doing what we did in one hour.”

C 102 Jetliner from Flight (January 5, 1950)

C-102 Jetliner from Flight (January 5, 1950).

Because the maiden flight had come during the plant’s vacation shutdown, most of the draftsmen, engineers, and factory workers who’d built the prototype weren’t in attendance. So, a few days later, company management allowed all staff to leave their posts to watch the C-102’s second flight on August 16—which ended with the plane crash-landing.

After going through a series of scheduled tests to see how the Jetliner reacted to stalls and other conditions, the crew readied to land. “We then circled the field and selected the button that lowers the undercarriage,” co-pilot Rogers later recounted in a speech, “but the main wheels did not come down—only the nosewheel. So we selected the gear up again, but nothing happened at this point. This became discouraging.” The flight engineer broke a rib in his frantic efforts to dislodge the gear, but couldn’t get the emergency release lever to budge.

Over the radio, airport officials pleaded with the test flight crew to ditch the Jetliner in Lake Ontario. Eventually, Orrell and crew landed the plane on its belly on the Malton runway, incurring such minimal damage that the Jetliner was flying again within a month.

Article from the Toronto Star (August 17, 1949)

Article from the Toronto Star (August 17, 1949).

“While hair-raising at the time,” Floyd recorded in The Avro Canada C102 Jetliner (The Boston Mills Press, 1986), “this episode served to highlight the inherent safety of an aircraft with no propellers to get in the way in an emergency such as this, and at least we had one test under our belt that no manufacturer would dare to carry out at that stage in the life of a prototype aircraft, unless by accident, as in this case.”

From its maiden flight, the Jetliner enjoyed copious, fawning coverage in the local and national press, which hyped the jet as the future of passenger travel. Keen to earn international attention beyond the existing coverage in the trade and technical journals, Avro arranged a well-publicized tour to New York City in the April of 1950, to coincide with a Society of Automotive Engineers convention. En route, the Jetliner would carry 15,000 letters—the world’s first jet-powered airmail.

Coverage of the C 102 Jetliner departure for New York from the Globe and Mail (April 19, 1950)

Coverage of the C-102 Jetliner departure for New York from the Globe and Mail (April 19, 1950).

On the morning of April 18, W.M. MacLean, postmaster of Toronto, joined the mayor, Hiram McCallum, and more than a half-dozen young women in varieties of national costumes—a promotion for the upcoming International Trade Fair—in a gala send-off for the Jetliner’s first trip stateside. Dressed in a First Nations headdress, McCallum lit a peace pipe and gave it to the crew, along with an illustrated scroll, as gifts for the mayor of New York, William O’Dwyer. “I hope this will still be glowing when you reach New York,” McCallum told Rogers, the pilot. (The pipe went out en route, and flight engineer Bill Baker had to hastily re-light it on approach so the crew could hand it to representatives of Mayor O’Dwyer’s office.)

Taking off at 9:30 a.m., the Jetliner and crew arrived at New York’s Idlewild Airport in 59 minutes and 56 seconds—less time than it took for McCallum to get back downtown to his office. They could’ve made even better time, but as a prototype, the Jetliner’s certificate of airworthiness required it to fly at lower and slower speeds. Gordon McGregor, president of TCA, was Avro Canada’s guest aboard the flight, and he raved that the Jetliner “rose smoothly and behaved excellently with little noise or vibration.”

2013 08 10 GM April21 1950 200

The flight crew was greeted on the tarmac by more than 30 reporters and cameramen, eager to examine the jet from all angles. Pilot and crew were then ushered in limousines behind a police escort to their downtown hotel, as news of the Jetliner’s arrival flashed across Times Square’s illuminated news screen. The Jetliner crew spent the next few days giving demonstration flights for convention delegates and the local press, and evenings attending receptions in their honour.

The Jetliner’s success was greeted with front-page newspaper coverage. “The Avro Jetliner, the first turbojet transport plane ever flown in the United States, arrived yesterday at New York International Airport,” read the New York Times. “The sleek new airliner received a prolonged welcome from the several hundred spectators.”

Other newspapers lamented that a company in Canada had developed a jet-powered civil aircraft before the United States aviation industry. “This should give our nation a good healthful kick in its placidity,” one such article read. “The fact that our massive but underpopulated good neighbour to the north has a mechanical product that licks anything of ours is just what the doctor ordered for our overdeveloped ego.” The first flight of Boeing’s 707, the first American-built passenger jet, would not be until December 1957.

“Compared to the airplanes we were flying at the time, it was really marvellous,” Rogers told Campion-Smith of the Jetliner. “It was great fun demonstrating it because it out-performed everything else.”

(Above: Article from the Globe and Mail (April 21, 1950).)

American airlines were certainly intrigued by the Jetliner, which not only halved flight times on many regional routes but also flew much quieter and smoother than the prop-planes that were then used for passenger travel. But the airlines were also hesitant to be the first to adopt jet airliners, not knowing whether the ticket-buying public would accept the concept of jet travel. Authorities at some airports visited by the “fire-spitting” Jetliner prototype forced the Avro crew far from the terminal, fearing damage to the tarmac or even catastrophe if it leaked any “self-igniting fuel.”

2013 08 10 FlightJuly1950c 350Avro Canada opened a new marketing office in New York, and staff made sales pitches to all the U.S. airlines, including United, National, and Eastern, as well as the American armed forces. In 1951, the Jetliner prototype made demonstrations for potential buyers in Chicago; Dayton, Ohio; Washington, D.C.; and as far away as Miami and Los Angeles.

(Left: Advertisement for the C-102 Jetliner from Flight (July 6, 1950).)

National was close to confirming an order for four planes (with an option for six more), and the U.S. Air Force was arranging funds to acquire 20 Jetliners for use in high-altitude training. Howard Hughes, owner of Trans World Airlines, was particularly interested. In early 1952, he took the controls of the Jetliner himself during a demonstration flight and kept the Jetliner at his airfield in Culver City, California, while he considered purchasing upwards of 30 aircraft for TWA.

By the time Hughes became interested, however, the Jetliner was being pushed to the back-burner in Avro Canada’s over-burdened production facility. Hughes even tried negotiating a licence to have Convair, an American manufacturer, put the Jetliner into production. But Hughes’ offers were refused, and it’s unclear whether the American government would have approved Convair’s production of foreign aircraft in any case.

With the war in Korea escalating, the Canadian government had commissioned Avro Canada to design and build the RCAF a new all-weather, jet-powered interceptor, the CF-100. Production of the fighter was behind schedule and, in late 1951, the federal government pressured Avro to concentrate all its resources on the CF-100, effectively forcing Avro to withdraw from any efforts to develop, market, sell, or manufacture the Jetliner. “I suggest you forget that airplane and put your energy into getting the CF-100s out,” powerful cabinet minister C.D. Howe said to Floyd, the Jetliner’s designer, on a visit to the Avro plant.

“This sounded the death knell of the Jetliner,” Rogers explained years later. “We couldn’t give a production schedule to National Airlines and the whole program was set aside. I personally feel that the company made a very bad decision at that point because, rather than resurrecting this program or keeping it trickling along gently, the lure of military orders for the CF-100 and Orenda [jet engine], with the possibility of continuing military orders, resulted in the company stopping Jetliner development, and never putting it into production.”

2013 08 10 GM January10 1957 375

Many historians argue that the Jetliner wasn’t commercially viable, that none of the prospective orders were guaranteed, and that “Avro’s helter-skelter management” had badly misjudged the market by designing and building a prototype without a buyer. The airline industry wasn’t ready to adopt passenger jets, this argument goes, until Boeing’s 707 became widely adopted beginning in the late 1950s.

(Right: Article from the Globe and Mail (January 10, 1957).)

“The Avro Jetliner was a flying white elephant, winging high and fast on the steroids of government money,” historican Michael Bliss quipped in a Report on Business Magazine (February 1989) book review intended to deflate the Avro Canada myth.

In a series of Globe and Mail articles on the future of aviation in December 1956, Michael Cope dubbed the Jetliner “[t]he plane that was born six years too soon.” By that point in time, the sole Jetliner prototype was pressed into service in support of the CF-100, a platform from which to observe and photograph tests of the fighter. Rogers took the Jetliner out on its final flight on November 23, 1956. Just over two weeks later, the Avro management distributed an inter-office memo ordering the Jetliner to be dismantled “as quickly and as quietly as can be done, every precaution being taken to attract as little attention as possible, and with the avoidance of any fanfare.”

“It was a beautiful aircraft and to see the chainsaws hacking it about made me sick to my stomach,” Floyd later told Campion-Smith. The Jetliner’s fate foreshadowed that of the technologically advanced Avro Arrow CF-105 fighter jet, which was cancelled by the federal government amid controversy in early 1959. Although the Jetliner has been commemorated with a Canada Post stamp issued in 1981 and a road named in its honour near Pearson Airport, the only surviving pieces of the pioneering passenger jet are the nose and cockpit sections, now housed in Ottawa’s Canadian Aviation Museum.

Additional sources consulted: Palmiro Campagna, Storms of Controversy: The Secret Avro Arrow Files Revealed (Dundurn, 2010); Mike Filey, Toronto Sketches 10 (Dundurn, 2010); Peter Pigott, Taming the Skies: A Celebration of Canadian Flight (Hounslow, 2003); Randy Richmond and Tom Villemaire, Colossal Canadian Failures (Dundurn, 2002); Beverley Tallon, “The Avro Jetliner C-102,” The Beaver 88.2 (April/May 2008); and articles from Aircraft Engineering (August 1950); Flight (January 5 and July 6, 1950); the Globe and Mail (August 11, 1949; April 19 & 21, 1950; December 15, 1956; and January 10, 1957); and the Toronto Star (August 11, 1949; April 18 and June 20, 1950; and August 11, 1994).

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