Today, Canada has one of the largest aviation industries in the world; supported by the world-beating Bombardier Dash 8 turboprop as well as a slew of regional and executive jet airliners. However, one thing that many people may not have known is that Canada was well on the verge of pioneering commercial jet aviation way back in 1949, taking to the sky within 13 days of the De Havilland Comet of the UK. Sadly though, Canada’s pioneering jet would meet an unceremonious end after a seemingly endless slew of delays forced the project out of the picture.
The roots of the Jetliner project first began back in 1945 when Trans-Canada Airlines (TCA) – renamed Air Canada in 1965 – started considering a number of new aircraft designs which would replace pre-war models such as the Douglas DC-3. However, Canada wasn’t the first country to consider new aircraft designs that would take the world of commercial aviation by storm, the most prominent being the UK aviation industry. As early as 1943, while World War II was still at its peak and victory wasn’t assured, the Brabazon Committee was created to consider a new range of airliners that would be the envy of the world and become the future of commercial aviation for the 1950’s. The Committee sifted the options eventually down to three pioneering models, a long-range jet airliner, a turboprop powered regional airliner and a smaller regional turboprop for lightly trafficked routes; these would become the De Havilland Comet, the Vickers Viscount and the De Havilland Dove, respectively.
Britain’s innovation for airliner technology landed on the shores of Canada in November 1945 when the Victory Aircraft company of Hamilton, Ontario, was sold by the Canadian government to the Hawker Siddeley group of the UK. Under Hawker Siddeley’s direction, the company was renamed to their subsidiary brand A.V. Roe Company (Avro); becoming Avro Canada. Now part of a British company, Canadian aircraft designers had the ability to travel to the UK and learn British technological details, this task being undertaken by Avro Canada chief designer Jim Bain. Bain took a tour of England in late 1945 prior to the sale of Victory to Hawker Siddeley, amazed at the advances that were being undertaken even in the face of abject destruction following the recent conflict in Europe. Of particular interest to Bain were the brand new AJ65 axial-flow turbojet engine; later to become the Rolls-Royce Avon used on the De Havilland Comet and a variety of UK fighters and bombers.
Enthralled by what he’d seen, Bain returned to Canada and started exploring the possibility of Avro Canada being able to create a jet airliner. At the time, the Avro Canada works were considering producing license-built versions of the upcoming Vickers Viscount turboprop for TCA, but soon Bain was able to sway his stakeholders into backing a jet airliner project. The contract was signed on April 9th, 1946, with the requirements for this new airliner being to carry 36 passengers, have a cruising speed of 425mph, a range of 1,200 miles and allow for a diversion of 120 miles and a stacking/diversion time of 45 minutes. The capacity of the aircraft was gradually revised to accommodate 50 passengers and 12,700lbs of cargo. The aircraft also needed to be able to takeoff from 4,000ft of runway, this being due to the short runway lengths of existing airfields built to handle piston-powered aircraft.
During 1947, further design changes were implemented when it was determined that the project would fail to meet budgetary constraints. Avro Canada was tempted to pull out of the project at first, but soon investment came from Canadian Liberal Party politician C. D. Howe, who invested $1.5m into the scheme on the condition that the development progress was slowed. This was compounded further by doubts regarding the airworthiness of the upcoming Avon engines. Instead, Avro Canada turned to the previous Rolls-Royce engine design, the Derwent; which had been used on the Gloster Meteor fighter jet during the latter days of World War II. The drawback of the Derwent was its lack of power that hampered the aircraft’s ability to fly on two engines. Much to the chagrin of Chief Designer James C. Floyd, the Jetliner was redesigned to be powered by four Derwent engines. Floyd gradually came to appreciate the presence of an extra two engines as a means of redundancy, allowing the aircraft to continue to fly in the event of a powerplant failure.
The styling of the Jetliner bore resemblances to the piston-powered Avro Tudor airliner of 1945, though in truth the design was completely bespoke for the Jetliner project. Avro did consider a jet-powered Avro Tudor in 1950, this being the Avro 706 Ashton series of prototype aircraft. At the same time, the demands of TCA led to the aircraft’s speed being increased to 500mph, requiring the addition of larger fuel tanks for wider diversions.
Trouble brewed, however, when the management at TCA changed and Gordon McGregor took the presidency of the company. McGregor was less than enthused by the Jetliner project and decided that TCA would no longer be the launch customer as he didn’t want the company being the first airline in the world with a jet. Regardless of McGregor’s views, the project continued forward, aiming for customer deliveries in May of 1952 followed by service entry in October of the same year.
With this in mind, it does lead to one of the most interesting cases of a ‘What if’ scenario.
In this instance, what if the Avro Canada Jetliner had been released in October 1952 as planned?
If this had occurred it would’ve not only rivalled the De Havilland Comet, but also complimented it as a domestic aircraft. Performance-wise, the Jetliner was capable of outperforming the later Sud-Aviation Caravelle of France, being able to takeoff and land using significantly less runway space. At the same time the aircraft would’ve been six years ahead of the Boeing 707 into the air and a domestic airliner competitor wouldn’t exist in earnest until the Boeing 727 of 1963. The Jetliner could’ve been the equivalent of the 727 or DC-9 over a decade before either would see the light of day, possibly changing the entire composition of the modern day aviation industry.
Enthusiasm was high for the Jetliner as several different versions with a variety of fuselage lengths and seating capacities were considered. In fact, with a simple fuselage stretch, the aircraft could easily be capable of carrying up to or even over 100 passengers. There were also non-passenger versions experimented with also; including a troop transport and paratroop model for the Canadian military, a flying hospital, a photo reconnaissance aircraft, a cargo plane and a crew trainer.
The Avro Canada Jetliner took to the air on August 10th, 1949, after only 25 months of development. Due construction delays on extending the runway at Malton Airport, Avro Canada’s home base, to accommodate the Jetliner, as well as repairs necessitated by external nacelle skin buckling, the aircraft sadly failed to become the world’s first jet airliner to ever fly; that distinction going to the De Havilland Comet a mere 13 days earlier.
Trouble unfortunately struck, however, on only the aircraft’s second flight when the landing gear failed to extend and the Jetliner had to make a belly landing; resulting in minor damage that was repaired in a couple of weeks.
In April 1950, the Jetliner was given its first commercial test by flying airmail from Toronto to New York, a flight time of only 58 minutes (an average speed of 352mph). Such high speed air travel between major cities was completely unprecedented and the highly anticipated flight was welcomed with a ticker tape parade through the streets of Manhattan for the flight crew. However, with the anticipated flight came with its issues. Firstly, the aircraft was so large that it couldn’t be parked at the terminal and thus was forced to stay at a far away ramp, while pans were placed under the engines in case they dripped fuel and spontaneously combusted.
The test flights of the Jetliner piqued the interest of business magnate Howard Hughes, owner of Trans World Airlines (TWA) and National Airlines of the United States. Enthused by the prospect of a jet airliner being built just over the way in Canada, he leased the Jetliner from Avro Canada and tested its performance at Culver City, California; with a view to introducing the aircraft on TWA and National flights between New York and major holiday destinations such as Florida and Cuba. As such, he placed an order for 30 units with a planned introduction for late 1952, exactly as the Jetliner project had planned.
However, everything was going hunky dory right up until the moment the project was given the unceremonious boot by none other than Avro Canada themselves.
Avro Canada’s problems, and ones that would doom the Jetliner project, came down to two issues; capacity at their overworked factory and the company’s almost fanatical interest in developing the RCAF’s first all-weather jet figther, the Avro CF-100 Canuck.
As tensions rose during the Cold War between east and west, the Canadian armed forces invested heavily in upgrading their vehicles and weaponry to the latest in technology to match those of their adversaries. As such, by 1950, focus had shifted in the ranks of Avro Canada from designing a pioneering jet airliner that could’ve become the staple of modern commercial aviation to a humdrum fighter aircraft that was built to fight a war that never happened. In fact the CF-100 was never able to prove itself on the field of battle and was turned down by the USAF as an interceptor for the Korean War due to its short range and insufficient payload.
Regardless, Avro Canada devoted as many resources and as much time as possible into the development of the CF-100, giving over pretty much all floorspace at their factory for the production of the fighter. The result was Avro Canada curtly turning down Hughes’ order as they had not the construction space to actually build the Jetliners.
Undeterred, Hughes attempted to seek the intervention of Convair to have the Jetliner license built in the United States. However, Avro Canada once again turned down the offer to focus solely in their military interests, compounded by the fact that due to the ongoing war in Korea the U.S. government was less than eager to invest in civil aviation ventures.
By 1952, when the Jetliner was originally meant to be launched into passenger service, the project had come to a grinding halt. The original prototype Jetliner had been grounded and a second prototype had been left in a partially assembled state.
There was a brief glimmer of hope when the Korean War concluded in 1953, where attempts were made to restart the Jetliner project now that there was less demand on manufacturers to build military aircraft to fight the communists. However, circumstances had overtaken the aircraft and in light of the Comet crashes and most people having forgotten the Jetliner even existed there was very little interest. TCA would go on to purchase Vickers Viscounts in 1955, becoming the first turbine powered aircraft to be used in North America while TWA and National would hold out for Boeing’s new and spectacular Boeing 707 in 1958.
But what of the pioneering Jetliner?
Upon the cancellation of the project in 1953, the partially assembled second prototype was scrapped but the original continued to see operational use as an aerial photography platform. It was subsequently put to work as part of a promotional campaign for the CF-100, taking striking air-to-air films and photos of the fighter jet throughout 1954 and 1955.
The end came in December 1956 when Avro Canada determined the aircraft was surplus to requirement and donated it to the National Research Council (NRC) for preservation. However, in a final cruel twist of fate the NRC had no storage space for the full aircraft and thus removed the cockpit and nose for preservation while the rest of the airframe was broken up. Today, this small piece of Canadian aviation history is now preserved at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.
So, the Jetliner, could it have worked?
There were high hopes for this aircraft and honestly, with a bit more development and investment, it could’ve become a true pioneer of commercial jet aviation; changing the course we now know for decades to come. If the Jetliner had become a success, the likes of the Sud Aviation Caravelle, the DC-9 and perhaps even the Boeing 727 would’ve had their timelines drastically altered to meet the new standard that had been set by this endearing little plane. The fact that the aircraft had also adopted round windows instead of the Comet’s square windows meant it would’ve likely been less susceptible to the demon metal fatigue which crippled its British counterpart.
The Jetliner was proven to perform and with subsequent variations could’ve ruled the roost of North American aviation for at least a decade. However, the poor timing of the Korean War and the governments of the time being determined to fight and eliminate the ‘Red Menace’ meant that all resources and space was designated to new war machines, leaving the unfortunate Jetliner out in the cold.
It’s another one of those classic ‘What if’ scenarios, though sadly it’s one that is seldom brought up.