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Broken Arrow: The rise and fall of Crawford Gordon and A.V. Roe Canada

August 2016

Canada has a proud history of leadership and innovation in industry and technology.  Perhaps one of the greatest industrialists and business minds in Canadian history was Crawford Gordon, Jr.  He was comptroller of finance at Canadian General Electric by the age of 21; he was “Minister of Everything” C.D. Howe’s “Boy wonder” at the Canadian Department Munitions and Supply during WWII at 28; he was president of the English Electric Company at 32; he was the top man at the Department of Defence Production and then president of A.V. Roe Canada at 36.  By the age of 40, he held directorship in nine of the largest corporations in Canada

At the far too young age of 52, he was dead, his years of heavy drinking and likely depression finally having caught up with him.

Gordon was a man driven to success and one who believed there was nothing that couldn’t be accomplished.  In a personal interview with the author, James (Jim) Floyd, Chief Design Engineer of Canada’s legendary CF-105 Avro Arrow jet fighter and later Vice-President (Engineering) at A.V. Roe Canada, said of Gordon, “He was a man who knew what he wanted and would not hesitate to move the earth to get it.”

As President and General Manager of A.V. Roe Canada, it was under Gordon’s leadership that problems in the development and production of the CF-100 Canuck fighter-interceptor were overcome, the first and only Canadian-designed and produced fighter jet to go into full production.  The problems with the Canuck were the reason why Minister of Defence Production C.D. Howe sent Gordon, one of his “Boys”, to A.V. Roe in October 1951, knowing he would get the jet fighter into production.

It was also under Gordon’s leadership that Avro’s engineers designed and built the first delta-winged fighter-interceptor, the CF-105 Avro Arrow, a supersonic jet identified by the Canadian Chiefs of Staff as needed to counter the threat of Soviet bombers attacking North America.  To this day, the CF-105 Avro Arrow is considered to be the greatest technical and aerodynamic achievement in the history of the Canadian aviation industry.

Sadly, his aggressive style would lead him to become one of the many casualties of the cancellation of the Avro Arrow.  Besides leading to his downfall, it would ultimately lead to his death in 1967.

Crawford Gordon was born in Winnipeg on 26 December 1914 to Crawford Gordon Sr. and Ethel Flora Fortune, who was a survivor of the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

During WWII, Gordon, already a successful businessman, was recruited by “Minister of Everything” C.D. Howe to assist the Canadian government in organizing industrial resources for wartime production and resource management; one of Howe’s “dollar-a-year men.”  Gordon was awarded the Order of the British Empire on 1 July 1946 at the age of 31 for his work. A total of 13 OBE medals were given to “Howe’s Boys” and Gordon was the youngest of that group.

It was this success that lead Howe to make Gordon the head the Department of Defence Production in the post-war years and eventually onto A.V. Roe Canada.

Under Gordon’s administration, A.V. Roe Canada was restructured into two separate divisions: Avro Aircraft Ltd. and Orenda Engines, both based at the Malton Airport, now the Lester B. Pearson Toronto International Airport.  The companies had a combined staffing level of around 15, 000 employees by 1958.

In 1957, A.V. Roe Canada also purchased a number of companies, including Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation, Canada Car and Foundry.  The following year, Canadian Steel Improvement was added, making A. V. Roe Canada an industrial giant with over 50,000 employees throughout an empire of 44 companies involved in coal mining, steel making, railway rolling stock, aircraft and aero-engine manufacturing, computers and electronics. Annual sales were in the area of $450 million, making A.V. Roe Canada the third largest corporation in Canada at the time.

However, it was production of the CF-105 Avro Arrow, the first all-Canadian designed and produced supersonic jet fighter that was looking to be the crowning achievement of Gordon’s administration at A.V. Roe.  Lead by Jim Floyd, then Director of Engineering, and Jim Chamberlain, Chief of Technical Design for the Arrow, the CF-105 Avro Arrow was set to become the first jet to exceed Mach-2, or two times the speed of sound.

While there were many challenges in the design and production of the Arrow, the most significant hurdle that Floyd and his design team had to overcome was that, due to the urgency of the Arrow program, the Arrow was to go straight into production with no prototypes.

In a personal interview with the author, James Floyd stated, “We were faced with enormous problems, the biggest being that we couldn’t make any prototypes.  Because of the urgency of the ‘time to squadron use’, it would not be possible to do the usual initial flight testing with prototype aircraft and then amend the drawings prior to production.”  The CF-105 Arrow had to be built on production tooling from the start of the program, so extensive testing of all components of the design had to be carried out prior to fixing the tooling.  However, some youthful exuberance by Floyd and his design team lead them to believe that they could make it happen.

Despite all the success of the design and flight testing of the Arrow, development of the Sparrow II missile and the Iroquois advanced turbojet engine designed and built by Orenda Engines, the costs were rising higher than the Liberal government of Louis St. Laurent were comfortable with paying, along with numerous delays with bringing the Arrow into full production.  When the Progressive Conservative party under John Diefenbaker won power in the election of 1957, an election that also saw C.D. Howe lose his parliamentary seat, Gordon and A.V. Roe lost their biggest supporters.  The Conservatives had campaigned on the promise of ending “rampant Liberal spending” and the Arrow project came under closer scrutiny.

The roll-out of the first Arrow, RL-201, took place on 4 October 1957, to a large crowd of 13, 000, including several dignitaries such as the Minister of National Defence, Major General Gorge R. Pearkes, a Victoria Cross winner from WWI and former Chief of the Air Staff and current vice-chairman of the board of directors at A.V. Roe, Air Marshall Wilf Curtis, DSC and Bar.  However, the spotlight was stolen from the Arrow by the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, which was launched by the Soviet Union on the same day.

In the end, the Avro Arrow program was cancelled 20 February 1959, a day became known as “black Friday” in the Canadian aviation industry.  Prime Minister John Diefenbaker claimed the decision was based on a number of factors that included defence needs, the cost of defence systems and a feeling that jet fighters were going to be made obsolete with the advent of the missile-age.  The Canadian government had agreed to purchase the new American BOMARC missile system, under the command of the recently formed North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), and Canada could not afford both the Arrow and the Bomarc

All completed or partially completed copies of the Arrow were cut up with torches and sold to a scrap dealer in Hamilton, Ontario, for around $4355 for each Arrow.  All design drawings and tools were also ordered destroyed, along with photos and film footage of the Arrow taxiing and flying.

In the decades since the demise of the CF-105 Avro Arrow, many other theories have been presented, one being the cancellation was due to a personality conflict between Crawford Gordon and Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, which resulted in many clashes due to a number of factors including the rising costs and unexpected delays in getting the Avro Arrow into production.

During their one and only meeting on 17 September 1958 in the Prime Minister’s office, an intoxicated Gordon was rude and belligerent while puffing cigarette smoke in Diefenbaker’s face, who was a non-drinker and non-smoker.  Gordon ended up being thrown out of the Prime Minister’s office for his behaviour.

In the documentary, “There never was an Arrow,” Avro Executive Vice-President (aeronautical) Fred Smye disputes this as the reason for the cancellation stating, “What’s that got to do with the air defence policy of the government of Canada?  Whether or not Diefenbaker and Gordon had a personality clash, the only time they met was on that occasion, September 17 for about 20 minutes.”

Another reason that has been often cited is that Gordon aimed too high in trying to design and manufacture an all-Canadian aircraft and the engines to power it.  However, Jim Floyd refutes this theory too, saying that Crawford Gordon was only following the orders given to him by the RCAF.  In a personal interview with the author, Floyd’s assessment was that it had to do with the government’s contention that missiles were the future of Canada’s defence.  “They had decided that it was missiles from there.  Jets would no longer be needed,” says Floyd.  “It had little to do with the cost of the aircraft,” which is one of the problems the Diefenbaker government cited as a reason to scrap the Arrow project.

In Floyd’s book on the Avro Jetliner, another jet aircraft Floyd was involved in designing and was subsequently scrapped, he includes a section on the Arrow and quotes Arrow test pilot, Flight Lieutenant Jack Woodman as saying that, “The decision to cancel the Arrow program I think denied Canada and the RCAF from being world leaders in high performance airplanes.  In my opinion it was that good.”

Another controversy that emerged was that the decision by A.V. Roe to immediately terminate all 14, 000 employees of “Black Friday” was a deliberate decision to embarrass the government into reversing the decision.  Fed Smye disputes this accusation, stating that he had advised the Deputy Minister of Defence Production Gordon Hunter that Avro’s decision to lay-off all their employees was because they felt they had no alternative and was not an attempt to embarrass the government. 

Smye specifically addressed this in the 1979 documentary, “There never was an Arrow:” “What do you do with 14, 000 employees with no work to do?”

Smye adds that Hunter was informed of this decision before it was officially announced to the employees over the P.A. system and if the government didn’t reverse its decision by 2 pm on “Black Friday”, the announcement would be made.

Whatever the true reason was, the cancellation of the Arrow spelled the end of Crawford Gordon and A. V. Roe Canada.  Gordon’s mentor and surrogate father Sir Roy Dobson, one of the founders of A.V. Roe Canada and later Chairman with A.V. Roe’s parent company Hawker Siddeley Group, requested and received Gordon’s resignation as President of A.V. Roe Canada.

The collapse of A.V. Roe Canada was inevitable after the early cancellation of the Arrow project.  Avro Aircraft had around 20 future programs under study in Jim Floyd’s initial projects office, but none were sufficiently advanced to fill the gap in the company’s operations and thousands of employees were without work.  The timing of the cancellation of the Arrow project had the effect of virtually putting the company out of the high-tech aviation business for good.

The end came for A.V. Roe Canada in 1962, when the Hawker Siddeley Group formally dissolved the company.  Hawker Siddeley Canada, was formed to take over their remaining assets and A.V. Roe Canada faded into history.  Orenda Engines would ultimately survive the dissolution and go onto produce the General Electric J85 engine for use in the Canadair CL-41 Tudor jet trainer, the jet currently flown by the RCAF’s 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, better known as “The Snowbirds.”

Orenda would be taken over by Magellan Aerospace in 1997 and re-named Orenda Aerospace.  It currently operates as Magellan Repair, Overhaul and Industrial.

Many former Avro employees went onto great success with other agencies like NASA, like Jim Chamberlain and others, who would go on to work on the moon project.  Jim Floyd returned to Hawker-Siddeley in the United Kingdom, where he became the Chief Engineer-in-charge their Advanced Projects study group, a group that conducted early studies on the possibility of a supersonic passenger aircraft, something which later evolved into the Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde passenger jetliner.

However, Gordon’s life was on a downward spiral after his firing from A.V. Roe Canada.  He would go onto buy two companies, but lost both companies and most of the money he invested in them.  He was given a CEO position with a recreational products company in Michigan by a friend, but was fired six months later.  By December 1966, his net worth of $3 million was gone and he was living on borrowed money in an apartment in New York City with his second wife Billie, still plotting a comeback right to the end.

After a long battle with alcoholism, Crawford Gordon died on 26 January 1967 of liver failure. His friends would say that he drank himself to his death.  As the 1979 documentary, “There never was an Arrow” points out, “Gordon could handle success, but not failure.”

A small funeral attended was held in New York, attended by 20 people, most of them friends of his widow Billie.  The only family that attended, besides Billie, were his daughter Diana and son Crawford III.  Gordon`s remains were cremated and he literally vanished from the face of the earth.  It`s unknown what happened to his ashes.

In a personal interview with the author, Jim Floyd described his long-lost friend Gordon as the kind of man who, if you did a good job, would stand behind your decisions.  “He died way too young,” Floyd added.

Gordon was also a man with strong principles who believed in standing up for what was right.  He once cancelled A.V. Roe’s annual golf tournament at the prestigious Toronto Golf Club when the club refused to admit a black A.V. Roe employee.

While Crawford Gordon may be long gone, his memory lives on in small ways such as a photograph of him in the lobby of the Trillium Health Partners Hospital, formerly Queensway General Hospital, in Toronto, Ontario, where he served as Chairman of the hospital board from 1954-1956.

On 9 September 2017, author Graham MacLachlan published a book on a family relative, J.P. Bickell, who personally financially founded A.V. Roe Canada and was the Chairman from inception until his death on 22 August 1951. The book includes information on his involvement with Sir Roy Dobson, etc. Published by Dundurn Press.


Sources:  “There never was an arrow: by the National Film Board, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crawford_Gordon_Jr., “Arrow through the heart:  The life and times of Crawford Gordon and the Avro Arrow” by Greig Stewart, information provided to the author by James Floyd, Chief Design Engineer, CF-105 Avro Arrow (2009), “The Arrow” by James Dow.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/broken-arrow-the-rise-and-fall-of-crawford-gordon-and-a-v-roe-canada/

3 pings

  1. What Never Was: The Legacy of the Avro Arrow – The Kurio Kabinet

    […] Pierre Sevigny, the associate deputy minister for John Diefenbaker, believed that A.V. Roe Canada President Crawford Gordon Jr. (pictured above) was the one who issued the order to destroy all evidence of the Arrow out of spite. (Photo: Canadian Military History by Bruce Forsyth) […]

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