Sitting at the bottom of Lake Ontario are believed to be nine scale prototypes of Canada's much-vaunted but cancelled Avro Arrow interceptor jet of the 1950s. Measuring three metres long by two metres wing to wing, the test planes are about one-eighth the size of the full CF-105 Arrow and have been submerged since they plunged into the lake between 1954 and 1957. Soon, if a search team is successful, the prototypes could be brought to the surface and put on display – artifacts of a project that still stirs both pride and bitterness among Canadian aviation enthusiasts.
With the help of a programmable submarine from Newfoundland and Labrador-based Kraken Sonar Inc., a team of scientists and archeologists is focusing on an area just off Point Petre in Ontario's Prince Edward County.
Starting July 24, the ThunderFish autonomous underwater vehicle – a small, pilotless sub equipped with the AquaPix interferometric synthetic aperture sonar – will begin searching the area thought to contain the missing test planes.
The expedition is being headed by John Burzynski of Canadian gold miners Osisko Mining Inc.
It is receiving funding from about a dozen banks and businesses and support from the Canadian Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Military Institute and the non-profit Canada Company, a support organization for military veterans.
"As professional explorers in the mining business, we initiated this program about a year ago with the idea of bringing back a piece of lost Canadian history to the Canadian public … during this anniversary year of our incredible country," Mr. Burzynski said in a statement.
While he helped get the project off the ground, it's the folks at Kraken who will bring their expertise to help with the underwater search effort.
"People ask, 'Well, do you think you are going to find them?'" said David Shea, Kraken's vice-president of engineering. "The problem isn't the technology. The problem is making sure you are looking in the right place."
Mr. Shea and the team believe the area just off Point Petre is the right location because the test planes were launched from a military base there six decades ago.
"I would guess that [they] went a few thousand feet in the air and I don't think they would be much more than a mile out," said Jack Hurst, who witnessed the launching of the planes.
"Canadian aviation enthusiasts always turn back to the Arrow as being a turning point in Canadian history, where potentially we could have gone on to greater and bigger things," said Major Scott Spurr of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
In the late 1950s, the Avro Arrow was touted as the world's most technologically advanced interceptor jet. From the data obtained testing the aerodynamics of the free-flight scale prototypes – which were attached to rocket boosters and launched over Lake Ontario – just six full-sized planes were produced in Canada. In February, 1959, the government of John Diefenbaker abruptly cancelled the program and ordered the aircraft and the designs destroyed.
The controversial decision meant as many as 30,000 people lost their jobs at Avro Canada and in the country's aerospace industry. Many of Canada's aerospace experts went on to work for Lockheed, Boeing and NASA.
Mr. Shea said the goal of the mission is to find all nine test planes. He said the first five to be launched were made of wood and stainless steel, while the other four were built of titanium and magnesium. He said the "holy grail" would be to find the ninth prototype launched from Point Petre because it would be the most similar to the actual Avro Arrow.
"There will be a lot of corrosion," he said. "The wood would have rotted a fair bit," although at least the test planes have been sitting in fresh water, not the more corrosive salt water of an ocean.
"And there is very little current there, there is no tidal action. … We hope to find them intact," he said, adding that the expedition will still have to deal with any stormy weather conditions, which could delay the mission. Other obstacles include "60 years of growth," which could obscure the artifacts.
Mr. Shea said past attempts to locate the prototypes were unsuccessful because search teams were looking in the wrong place.
Members of the search team say they hope to locate at least one, if not all, of the test planes by the first week of August. Plans will then be made to bring them to the surface, restore them and put them on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa and the National Air Force Museum of Canada in Trenton, Ont.
"These are the kinds of jobs that really stand out," Mr. Shea said. "Years later I'll look back and remember … looking for the Avro Arrow, which as a kid I remember reading books about and studying."