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Jan 31, 2013  |  Vote 0    0

Searching for the Avro Arrow: London diver on cusp of supersonic discovery

London Community News

A London diving instructor believes she is “this close” to finding at least one long-lost test model of the legendary Avro Arrow.

“We are so on the edge of the nest,” Marlyn (Mar) Smith told London Community News.

The 25-year diving veteran, professional instructor and owner/operator of Dive With Mar is the dive team lead for the Arrow Recovery Canada Inc. (ARC) expedition. Miming the universal hand gesture for “shush,” she said the team has turned up strong evidence of the models’ location.

The 500-pound, 10-foot test models were launched over Lake Ontario at supersonic speeds in the late 1950s from Point Petre (about four and a half hours east of London via the 401), which was used as early as 1938 as an artillery test site affiliated with what was eventually called CFB Picton.

They represent a large part of all that remains in the physical world of the then-revolutionary Avro Arrow supersonic jet program, scrapped and scuttled suddenly and mysteriously by the John Diefenbaker-led Conservative government of the day.

In 1996 the CBC aired a four-hour mini-series called The Arrow starring Dan Akroyd. It has been noted as representing the CBC’s largest ever viewership.

Arrow Recovery Canada Inc. is a registered non-profit group “striving to salvage a controversial and important piece of Canadian Aviation Heritage,” staffed by volunteers with the help of sonar and navigation experts.

Since 1998 they have been scouring the portion of the lakebed where aircraft test models and other projectiles launched from Point Petre, such as the air-to-air Velvet Glove missile, terminated their flight.

In the past 15 years they have used a side-scan sonar device to image the lakebed, identifying about 30 locations where one of the nine remaining models could be.

According to Smith they have dived about eight of the waypoints, but the costly and logistically complex missions are sporadic, amounting to about six days of good sonar scanning in all that time.

She said with a financial boost they could get the job done in a matter of two weeks and likely turn up the Holy Grail of lost Canadiana.

“If every Canadian would reach in and throw us a loonie or a toonie then we could get out there, not have to beg and borrow from our volunteer people,” she said. “If we can get a commitment and hire a boat, and all the other things we need and get out for a week or two, I’m sure we could just have this done with.”

In the absence of a large cash infusion, the volunteer expeditions remain logistical nightmares for even the most dedicated enthusiast.

The side scanner alone costs them $500 a day, a steep discount from the going commercial rate of $1,800. The team also needs at least two 14- to 20-foot boats capable of handling the professional grade waves and temperamental weather of Lake Ontario, marine radios, global positioning systems and of course all of that SCUBA and dive gear.

And that’s not to mention a team of highly skilled volunteers willing to spend their time and empty their gas tanks trucking out to the relatively isolated launch site on the chance the weather on the water will cooperate.

Just putting two divers in the water to explore one waypoint (the average depth of the test range is about 100 to 120 feet) is a two-hour ordeal. And because they are considered commercial divers their activity is tightly regulated by the Ministry of Labour.

“You can plan for a week but you are probably lucky to get two, three good days out of it,” Smith explained. “Then when the going gets good, a piece of equipment breaks or the wind picks up – Oh my god, I can’t tell you the frustration.”

Seeking funding often turns up a paradox: whether it’s a volunteer base that has become “burned out” after grinding in this fashion for over a decade or the Ontario Trillium Foundation, potential contributors tend to want “more action faster.”

“But it doesn’t work that way,” Smith said. “We have applied to Trillium and other places (but) they see us as not bricks and mortar. So in other words, ‘Ok, you’ve got a dream, that’s nice. Let us know when you find it and we’ll help you restore it.’”

She said their targeted fundraising efforts have turned up a lot of in-kind contributions, such as the discounted side-scan rental mentioned above, or marine radios. Any actual cash has come from the sale of Avro Arrow-related memorabilia such as DVDs, hats, pins, and t-shirts on their website (www.avroarrow.org).

Where dollars may be sparse, interest apparently is not according to Andrew Hibbert, head of Arrow Recovery Canada.

After a couple years of virtual inactivity, he said interest in the Arrow models has been rekindled in recent months.

“It’s been great this winter to feel that interest again,” he said. “It’s a fascinating project and one we can’t seem to let go of. Even these last couple of years we have been talking about it, saying we need to get back out there.”

He said about 15 people have contacted him since an article on ARC ran in the Toronto Star earlier this month. One of them owns a 20-foot Zodiac, which would be an “ideal” vessel for the job.

“There is so little hard evidence of the story that everybody would like to have one of these things,” he said. “There is a very good probability we will find one this summer. Of the targets we have, it is quite possible one or more would be an actual Arrow model. There are nine out there.”

He said the models are probably in good shape, their aluminum and stainless steel bodies resistant to corrosion.

“Several museums have told us that once we find a model and can verify it’s there with photographs, they would be interested in helping with the recovery and transport back to their location to start the conservation process,” Hibbert explained. “And that’s our interest. We don’t want to keep the models, we just would like to be able to stand in a museum and say we helped bring that back.”

The day they do find a model would be another beginning, not an end. The Ontario government claims the entire zebra mussel covered lakebed so divers can’t move, or even touch, anything they find.

They would have to obtain a licence to remove the relic and contract an approved marine archaeologist to oversee the lift.

Hibbert, 70, is an avid diver himself.

“Like so many Canadians, I was interested in the story from the time it started, and of course there is the mystique of the abrupt cancellation of the program, which left us a $400-million pile of junk,” he said. “Like any diver I checked out a shipwreck a few times and started wondering about its origin, what it was called, what it was carrying. I took a few courses in marine archaeology and a couple of shipwreck research projects and the rest is history.”

When Smith was recruited to ARC by its founder, Phillip Scott, she was at the bottom of a steep learning curve. She was unfamiliar with the Arrow legend (“I felt kind of un-Canadian,” she sheepishly admitted), the type of diving involved was different than what she spent most of her career doing, and the research aspect of the mission and side-scanning sonar equipment was new to her as well.

“I love to learn stuff,” Smith said. She is also a professional hairstylist with over 35 years experience. “I was honoured to be asked to help out with this project.”

Smith fell in love with the underwater world when a friend of hers asked her to try snorkeling.

“I said ‘grab me a beer I’ll be back in 10,’” she recalled, sitting in her home-based hair studio on Sunningdale Road. “I think I was out there for two hours because it was so ‘Wow.’ I came back and my fingers hit the Yellow Pages and I haven’t looked back.”

Smith is a cave diver and instructor as well. She has dived in various spots in the Caribbean such as Curacao and St. Kitts, and Cuba, to name a very few.

“I’ve done it extensively but I have not done it all by a long shot,” she said. “I love the Mayan Riviera because of the caves (but) they’re all so unique with something different to offer. You’re swimming through this labyrinth, thinking ‘we are such a speck in the universe.’”

“I can’t get enough of it.”

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