Tech by VICE

Robots Will Search a Lake for Remnants of Canada’s Doomed 1950s Fighter Jet

Several "free flight" models are believed to be on the bottom of Lake Ontario.

by Jordan Pearson
Jul 14 2017, 5:21pm

Image: National Film Board of Canada, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1950s, Canadians felt that the threat of the Soviet Union dropping bombs on urban centres was very real. We needed a new kind of supersonic fighter jet that could intercept bombers, and so Canada began to develop its very own war plane: the ill-fated Avro Arrow.

The Avro first took to the air in 1958. But in 1959, the project was abruptly scrapped (the government cited mounting costs) and all existing planes were ordered destroyed. The unexpected news was received with what the CBC described as "stunned silence." Since then, the Arrow has become a flashpoint for nostalgia and consternation, since nobody will ever know for sure whether the Arrow's now-apocryphal fighting abilities would have dominated the air. Still, some artifacts remain. Several small "free flight" Arrow models, flown at supersonic speeds to assess the real thing's specs, were designed to transmit information back to engineers on the ground before crashing into the water. Nine of them are believed to be sitting at the bottom of Lake Ontario.

Read More: The Canadian Military Is Investigating a Mysterious Noise In the Arctic

Next week, a new search for these lost flight models will begin. Autonomous underwater robots outfitted with sonar sensors from Newfoundland-based company Kraken Sonar will be launched from Point Petre in Ontario and scan the lake bed every day for two weeks. The tech already has some artifact-finding cred; in 2014, Kraken's sonar was used to find the wreck of the long-lost HMS Erebus , which became ice-locked in the Arctic in 1846 before disappearing.

"The models that we're looking for are about three metres long with a two-metre wingspan, so we expect the sonar images will have about 6,000 pixels on each of those targets," said David Shea, VP of Engineering for Kraken Sonar, in a phone call. "If they're down there, and we're looking in the right place, we'll definitely find them."

If the models are found, they'll be sent to the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa for preservation.

"The Canada Aviation and Space Museum's collection comprises the largest surviving pieces of the Avro Arrow: a nose section and two wingtips," Fern Proulx, interim President and CEO of Ingenium, a new brand that encompasses Canada's science museums, said in an emailed statement. "A free-flight model would be a wonderful addition to our collection, and to the Arrow story we share with Canadians."

It's not the first time someone has scoured Lake Ontario for the free flight models, but it's likely the best-funded venture to date. A volunteer group called Avro Recovery Canada has searched the lake bed numerous times to no avail. This time, the search is being bankrolled by OEX Recovery Group, an organization that holds survey and recovery permits and is backed by Ontario-based Osisko Mining as well as several banks and venture capital firms.

If successful, the new search for the remaining Avro Arrow flight models will bring a puzzling bit of Canada's innovation history back into the light. If not, well, all the better for the Avro Arrow obsessives out there for whom the mystery is half the fun.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.

Lake Ontario
avro arrow