Sunday, April 30, 2017

Part 7: 150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History

A Government Lurching From "Problem to Problem"

Canadair CF-104D Starfighter. Photo CWHM.
         By Robert Godwin
Canada's aerospace raison d'être has always derived from its immense size, its location in the far north as a vast, barely-tracked wilderness of incalculable resources and the logical requirements relating to defence, communications, utilization and exploration which naturally follow from its size and location.

While Phil Lapp and John Chapman worked on Canada's first satellite, the Canadian government seemed to lurch from one problem to the next.

When the administration asked for aircraft industry proposals to update the CF-100s that were on-station in Europe, it was offered a choice of the new supersonic Lockheed F-104 Starfighter (which would be built by Canadair in Montreal) or the new vertical take-off Hawker P1127 which would be built by Avro in Malton. Both aircraft presented problems.

Neither was adequate to protect or patrol Canada's remote regions and neither was ready for deployment. The F-104 was notoriously unforgiving in flight and soon earned itself the sobriquets "Jinx Jet," "Widowmaker" and "Flying Coffin". Meanwhile, the P1127 was only just getting off the ground as the world's first fighter jet capable of taking off and landing without a runway.

The government chose to go for speed rather than dexterity and gave the contract to Canadair. Any chance that Avro might have had to regroup was now over. History would write the next chapters in this unfortunate mess.

Canadair Plant One in Saint-Laurent, PQ, as seen from the air in March 1953, when it was producing forty F-86E fighters each month and ramping up production of the CT-133 Silver Star. The company began in 1944 as a subsidiary of another aircraft manufacturer, went on to become nationalized in 1976, then privatized in 1986 and finally absorbed by Bombardier after having experienced record losses during development of the Challenger business jet. Photo c/o Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada

The F-104 would go on to kill pilots around the world at an unprecedented rate, while the P1127 would be deployed as the Hawker Harrier and is still in service today, making it one of the most successful aircraft to ever fly. 1959 also ended with the decision to equip Canada's domestic squadrons with the Douglas Voodoo, another supersonic fighter. The Voodoo couldn’t fly as high or as fast as the Avro Arrow, but its range far exceeded that being covered by the inadequate Bomarc missiles.

Meanwhile, Canada's own big interceptor rocket finally took to the skies at Fort Churchill Manitoba. The Black Brant had entered space and began to return new information about the Canadian environment.

The new decade began with Phil Lapp proposing to merge his Canadian Astronautical Society (CAS) with the Canadian Aeronautical Institute (CAI). Lapp was the founder of the former, and on the board of the latter. The core of the CAI had struggled to attract its members to space research and so the merger was seen as eminently logical. It took over a year before the "S" was inserted into the acronym and in October 1961 the Canadian Aeronautical and Space Institute (CASI) was formed.

No wonder the public had concerns over the Bomarc missile. An account from the June 8th, 1960 issue of the Trenton Evening Times describing the explosive rupture of a Bomarc-A missile on-board helium tank at McGuire AFB on 7 June 7th, 1960. As outlined in the April 26th, 2011 Readex post, "The Bomarc Missile Plutonium Spill Crisis: Exercises in Propaganda and Containment in 1960 and Beyond," while the missile's explosives "didn't detonate, the heat melted the (nuclear) warhead, releasing plutonium which the fire crews then spread around. The Air Force and the Atomic Energy Commission cleaned up the site and covered it with concrete." Graphic c/o Trenton Evening Times.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1960 both the Bomarc and Britain's Blue Streak missiles fell on hard times. Despite Boeing's attempt to change Bomarc to solid fuel, which would theoretically make it always ready for launch, both were still seen as vulnerable. The new preference was to keep nuclear warheads mobile, either aboard large aircraft or submarines.

The Cold War was getting more and more dangerous and Canada still needed something to defend its airspace, but the Prime Minister did not want to bring nuclear warheads onto Canadian soil unless absolutely necessary. The Voodoos were capable of carrying such weapons, as were the Bomarcs, but so far neither had been armed. The highly public government fiasco turned even worse when the Bomarc was cancelled by the United States government just over a year after the missile had been selected to replace the Avro Arrow.

By 1962 the whole idea of being in the missile business had become so odorous it caused de Havilland to rename its missile division as "Special Projects." When Hawker Siddeley's offer to have Avro build the P1127 for Canada was rejected, the company decided to purchase de Havilland Canada.

The merger which took place in December 1959 involved both the companies in England as well as Canada. The price paid for the entire global operation was $37Mln CDN. There was now no need for two advanced project offices and so de Havilland's "Special Projects" was merged with Avro's "Advanced Research" to form SPAR.

Spar Aerospace founder and longtime chairman Larry Clarke (1925 – 2015) beside a transmission for a Sikorsky UH-60A Blackhawk military helicopter in 1986. As outlined in his October 24th, 2015 Toronto Star obituary, "In 1967, he "led the acquisition of SPAR Aerospace Ltd. from de Havilland and as founder, president, and chief executive officer, built SPAR into a world-class space-technology company. SPAR was best known for the Canadarm designed for the Space Shuttle orbiters. As a result of this innovation, the country enjoyed a high profile within the US space program NASA. As a true visionary, Larry's commitment and dedication to developing Canada's aerospace industry provided opportunities for thousands of engineers." Photo c/o Virtual Reference Library.

In an attempt to make use of all of the money that had already been spent on Blue Streak, in September 1960 the British government officially asked the Canadian government to join them in a joint Commonwealth space program but having just cancelled Bomarc, the cabinet in Ottawa was in no mood to get involved in another missile program.

Ironically the choice to abandon cooperation left Canada with only observer status when it came to Britain and the United States' first serious attempts to design and build a trans-Atlantic communications satellite.

Canada had been the first port of call for all trans-Atlantic communications since Kelvin had laid the first cable and Marconi had received the first trans-oceanic radio message. Now the next step in long distance communications, something which Canada knew how to do as well as any other country was being left to others. Leading the charge in England on this project was James Floyd, the repatriated chief engineer for the Avro Arrow.

Once SPAR had perfected the long STEM antenna Canada's first satellite was ready to be built and tested. On September 29th 1962 Canada entered the space era when the Alouette was launched from Vandenberg Air Force base in California. Canada was only the third country to have a home-grown satellite in space and its stated task was to look down and study the earth's atmosphere. The STEM antenna deployed perfectly and performed so well that the US government asked that a set of STEMs be installed on its next manned Mercury spacecraft. Thus began the long history of one of Canada's greatest space exports.

Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, with US President John Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in the Bahamas in December 1962. Officially, Diefenbaker was scheduled to arrive in Nassau for talks with Macmillan following Kennedy's departure. However, as outlined by David Owen in his 1972 book, "The Politics of Defence," the Canadian PM arrived early, so Kennedy lunched with both Diefenbaker and Macmillan. Owen quoted Kennedy as stating, "There we sat like three whores at a christening." Photo c/o Getty.

However, just a month after the launch of Alouette the United States' military went toe-to-toe with the Soviet Union in what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy managed to extricate the world from the precipice but in the meantime he had run out of patience with the government in Ottawa for still refusing to arm the Bomarcs and Voodoos with nuclear weapons.

Compounding the problem was the fact that the British Blue Streak had been removed as a weapon in Europe on the understanding that it would be replaced by another untested missile, the Douglas Skybolt. The Skybolt was a stand-off weapon, designed to be deployed on a bomber and launched from a distance at its target.

The British had cancelled Blue Streak and agreed to take Skybolt, only to then see Skybolt cancelled. With no replacement in sight the British Prime Minister urged Kennedy to give Britain the submarine launched Polaris, which he did. This left Canada sidelined with nothing but unarmed Bomarcs and Voodoos.

Prime Minister Diefenbaker flew to a summit in the Bahamas with President Kennedy and British Prime Minister Macmillan, but his insistence on keeping Canada out of the nuclear club had agitated the young American President who chose to not discuss the subject further and instead set about explaining how Americans were going to get to the moon using something called "Lunar Orbit Rendezvous" or LOR.  
Robert Godwin.

Robert Godwin is the owner and founder of Apogee Space Books, the Space Curator at the Canadian Air & Space Museum and an American Astronautical Society History Committee Member.
He has written or edited over 100 books including the award winning series "The NASA Mission Reports" and appeared on dozens of radio and television programs in Canada, the USA and England as an expert not only on space exploration but also on music.  
His books have been discussed on CNN, the CBC, the BBC and CBS 60 Minutes. He produced the first ever virtual reality panoramas of the Apollo lunar surface photography and the first multi-camera angle movie of the Apollo 11 moonwalk. His latest book was written with the late Frederick I Ordway III and is called "2001 The Heritage and Legacy of the Space Odyssey" about the history of spaceflight at the movies.
Last Week, "Bomarc Missiles, The "Prevailing Wisdom" of Unaware Politicians, Unemployed Avro Employees, NASA, Canadair, CAI & the Origins of Spar Aerospace," in part six of "150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History."

Next Week, "Stehling, Maynard, the Lunar Excursion Module, Gerald Bull, James Chamberlin & Phil Lapp" as part eight of "150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History" continues.

On sale now, at Apogee Books.

1 comment:

  1. (A few comments on Rob Godwin's latest (part 7)...

    First, a small factual error: it was the McDonnell Voodoo, not the Douglas Voodoo. (The two companies merged about a decade later.)

    Second, much is made of the F-104's dismal safety record, but that was largely a problem with one F-104 operator, the Luftwaffe. Several other European air forces, e.g. the Norwegians, operated the F-104 with much better safety records. And the Luftwaffe's other fast jets also had unusually high crash rates. The single biggest improvement in Luftwaffe F-104 safety came not from changes in equipment, but from a concerted effort to train maintenance crews better. The F-104 certainly was a "hot", complex, unforgiving aircraft, but the terrible Luftwaffe F-104 crash rate was much more a Luftwaffe problem than an F-104 problem.

    And in fairness, the Voodoos didn't have to be "unarmed" without nuclear warheads -- they could carry non-nuclear air-to-air weapons too. Less effective, perhaps, but the option was there. Bomarc was the defensive system that really needed a nuclear warhead (even it theoretically had an alternative conventional warhead, but nobody took that seriously).

    Henry Spencer


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