Forgotten firsts — the Avro Canada C-102
The year was 1949 and the world was a very different place. The titanic struggle to defeat the Axis powers had ended just four years earlier at a terrible cost. America’s industrial prowess and the Soviet’s willingness to pay the butcher’s bill meant that the Allies had prevailed.
If nothing else, the war had demonstrated the importance of aviation. Dominance of the skies is what made the Allied victory possible in Europe. The atomic bombs that ended the Pacific War were delivered by the most advanced aircraft of its time, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress.
Post-WW2, Canada was in the process of revitalizing its industry. Aviation was a vital part of that vast country’s transport infrastructure, and the manufacturing sector was vibrant. De Havilland Canada was dominant. Created by the British de Havilland Company, this North American subsidiary would go onto design several landmark aircraft: the DHC-1 Chipmunk basic trainer; the rugged DHC-2 Beaver, dubbed “the world’s greatest bushplane” and the “half-ton flying pickup truck”, primarily a floatplane but equally workmanlike on wheels and skis; and the ubiquitous DHC-6 Twin Otter turboprop, as versatile as its predecessors the Beaver and DHC-3 Otter — to name a few.
Two more of DHC’s regional turboprop models, the Dash 7 (DHC-7), a four-engine turboprop, and Dash 8 (DHC-8) twin-turboprop, would also enjoy long production runs. The latter evolved into the phenomenally successful Bombardier ‘Q’ Series, of which the Q400 is the latest and most popular iteration.
But this was in the future. Avro Canada was also a pioneer in the industry, as another Canadian offshoot of a legendary British aircraft manufacturer, in this instance A.V. Roe & Company (Avro). In 1949 Avro Canada decided to develop a small jet-powered passenger aircraft for regional routes. Designated the C-102, its maiden flight took place in August 1949, less than two weeks after the de Havilland D.H.106 Comet had first flown in the UK. The C-102 would be the only passenger jet to be developed in North America for another eight years.
Far ahead of its time
The C-102, and the Comet were far ahead of their time. In 1949, the world’s major manufacturers and airlines were still obsessed with piston-engines. The dominant airliner of the period was the graceful Lockheed Constellation. Meanwhile the more utilitarian Douglas DC-6 was also very popular, and Douglas Aircraft Corporation was working on its successor the DC-7, also powered by piston engines.
Boeing’s only civilian product was the Model 377 Stratocruiser, an ungainly hybrid of the B-29 bomber which was plagued by engine problems. The Seattle-based manufacturer was far more interested in the lucrative military side of its business and was developing the B-47 jet-powered bomber for the US Air Force. No major manufacturer or airline in North America was in the least bit interested in jet-powered aircraft for commercial passenger use.
So that left the small Avro Canada company and a far-sighted team at Trans-Canada Air Lines (TCA; later to become Air Canada) to develop a regional aircraft with turbine engines. The turboprop option was interesting. Already Vickers in Britain was working on an aircraft that would become the groundbreaking Viscount. However, Rolls-Royce had just developed an axial-flow turbojet named the Avon. This was selected as the engine for the regional jet to be designed by Avro Canada for TCA.
First flight and demonstrations
Rapid development led to that first flight on 10 August 1949. This was followed by a trial airmail flight (the first by a jet aircraft) between Toronto and New York in April 1950, which halved the flight time between those two cities. Yet for some inexplicable reason, Trans-Canada Airlines shied away from committing to a firm order for what was obviously a very promising aircraft.
Meanwhile in the USA, Howard Hughes who had inspired the design of the Constellation was enthralled by the C-102 and leased the prototype so he could fly it himself. Hughes was very keen to place a large order for Trans World Airlines (TWA), which he controlled, but no manufacturer would commit to building the aircraft for him. The military business was more lucrative and far less risky.
Sadly, with no hope of any sales, the C-102 program was terminated in 1951 and the prototype was scrapped. Trans-Canada would order more than 50 Vickers Viscount turbo-props in 1955, enabling it to become first operator of a turbine-engine passenger aircraft in North America.
How could Canada have made such a mistake?
While it seems perplexing today, it must be remembered that in 1950 the world was a vastly different place. In the aftermath of World War 2 the world had become divided into competing blocs — with the Soviet dominated ‘eastern’ sphere and the US- influenced ‘western’ one vying for dominance. Another conflict had just broken out in Korea, where United Nations forces (including Canadian troops) had come into combat with the Communist Chinese Army and suffered grievous losses. The General commanding UN forces, Douglas MacArthur, wanted to use atomic weapons to halt the Chinese advance — an option that thankfully was never authorised.
A third world war seemed imminent. So Western governments, focused as they were on producing combat aircraft, failed to see a pressing need for a fast jet-propelled civil transport. In fact, Avro Canada was also developing the CF-100 fighter, and this program was made a priority by the Canadian government. Producing military aircraft for government air forces was a safe and profitable option. A new-technology passenger aircraft on the other hand, was a risky proposition.
But even this argument is questionable. Avro Canada continued to concentrate on military airplanes, and in addition to the CF-100 it produced the CF-105 Arrow, a cutting-edge fighter jet, that was also cancelled by government fiat in 1959. The prototypes were destroyed and the Royal Canadian Air Force bought American-built jets instead. These two perplexing decisions probably altered the course of Canada’s aviation industry for the worse.
We now know that another World War didn’t occur. The Korean War ended in a stalemate — that endures to this day. With hindsight, by cancelling the C-102 project Canada missed out on gaining a significant head start on the jet age.
Separately, Britain’s Comet went into airline service in 1952; but a fatal design flaw meant that it was grounded not long afterward. Only in 1958 did the much-improved Comet 4, with all design faults of the ill-fated Comet 1 rectified, enter airline service. But that hiatus gave the US manufacturers, particularly Boeing, a window of opportunity. The Seattle manufacturer gambled on a jet transport and flew the Boeing 707 in December 1957 — going on to dominate the industry ever since.
Douglas was forced to play catch up with the DC-8, which was launched a year later. Convair, another long-forgotten manufacturer, joined the party in 1959 with the 880. Lockheed continued to ignore the turbojet engine, preferring to concentrate on the turboprop Electra, thereby completely missing the bus (apologies for the mixed metaphors!).
Ironically, it took the Canadian aviation industry almost 30 years to produce another regional jet aircraft, the Canadair Regional Jet (CRJ). A sales success, especially under the aegis of later owner Bombardier, variants of the CRJ have been in production ever since.
A later, larger and totally differently configured type, the Bombardier C-Series, had a successful launch; but didn’t set the cash registers ringing until it was acquired and adapted by Airbus in 2017 as the Airbus A220.
Crystal balls are flawed devices. The one used by the Canadian government in the 1950s especially so. But nothing can detract from the brilliance of Avro Canada’s achievement in designing, building and successfully flying such an innovative aircraft as the C-102 more than 70 years ago.
This is part of a series on the propliners of the 1950s and the slow transition to the jet age. It all began with the DC-3 of course, and my columns move through the other Douglas propliners, the Boeing 377, Lockheed’s Electras and the elegant Constellation. The Brabazon Committee which sparked such a wave of innovation in the UK with the Vickers Viscount, the Bristol Britannia and the ill-fated de Havilland Comet. Many other significant aircraft, such as Avro Canada’s innovative but aborted C-102 passenger jet and the Sud-Aviation Caravelle, which led us into the start of the Jet Age have columns too.
A few quirky segues I couldn’t resist: the ‘Double Sunrise’ flights between my two homelands Ceylon and Australia; the wonderful Carvairs and that very British habit of taking your car on holiday. I also had to write a paean to my beloved A380 and all my pilot friends in the Gulf as COVID ended that little dream.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the series as much as I have relished writing them. My special thanks to my old friend, mentor, editor and repository of knowledge Roger Thiedeman, for all the encouragement and support throughout this project.