- It Came From Outer Toronto...
- Avro Canada is best remembered
for the ill-fated Arrow,
the supersonic jet fighter shelved by Ottawa
in 1959. Now, newly-released
CIA documents shed new light on another of
the company's dreams - a flying
- Washington -- The year was 1952 and the Cold War was
chill. The House Un-American Activities Committee was looking for
under beds, and UFO sightings were spreading like an epidemic across
the United States. Even Air Force pilots reported being pursued by flying
saucers. The sense of dread was turning to frenzy, and the CIA decided
something had to be done.
- In one of his many memos on the subject, H. Marshall
Chadwell, deputy head of the agency's Office of Scientific Intelligence,
declared that "something was going on that must have immediate
He and others in the CIA were concerned that the
Soviet Union was developing
a secret weapon based on the "flying
discs" that the Nazis had
been rumoured to have constructed in the
last months of the Second World
- Recently released documents
from the CIA archive are
full of accounts by former German scientists
of their desperate work to
save the Fatherland with revolutionary
circular aircraft supposedly capable
of enormous speeds. But when the
CIA set up a study group in 1952 to look
into the phenomenon, it
discovered something extraordinary far closer to
home: In Canada,
British engineers were in the process of building a flying
- It was called Project Y, a joint British-Canadian venture
the unknown that was, for much of the 1950s, perhaps the most secret
aviation project in the West. Half a century on, the Project Y story
a remarkable chapter in the history of aerial design, an idea
tantalizingly close to breaking all the rules of the sky,
in bitter disappointment for lack of money and
- Back in the '50s, the news that British boffins were
saucer set off alarm bells at the CIA. Was the United States
behind by its staunchest allies in the race for a technological
And if Britain and Canada could build a flying saucer, then surely
Soviet Union wouldn't be far ahead.
- Mr. Chadwell wanted answers.
The sense of urgency is
tangible in a memorandum he sent in June of
1954 to his department heads,
demanding reports on "the use by any
foreign power or nation of non-conventional
types of air vehicles, such
as or similar to the 'saucer like' planes presently
by the Anglo/British Canadian efforts."
- While CIA agents were
dispatched to watch eastern skies
for flying saucers, U.S. Air Force
officers were visiting Malton, just
outside Toronto, the research
headquarters of Avro Canada, a subsidiary
of the British aircraft firm
A.V. Roe Ltd.
- After the war, Malton was the place to be for hotshot
designers fleeing Britain's doomed aviation industry. Among them
supremely talented 31-year-old, John Frost, who had already earned
reputation for unorthodox design with the sleek de Havilland 108, a
research plane and arguably one of the most beautiful
aircraft of all time.
- Mr. Frost was brought to Avro Canada to work on the
fighter, an ugly pug-nosed design he never really liked. He soon
obsessed with far more radical departures from orthodoxy. It is
whether he drew inspiration from the increasingly widespread
of alien-piloted flying saucers skimming through the
postwar skies or how
much he relied on previous research.
- He would have known
about the "Coanda effect,"
named after a French Romanian
inventor, Henri-Marie Coanda, who experimented
with the first
rudimentary jet engine as early as 1910. He found that a
not only provide thrust; by sucking in air, it could also
vacuum above the wing and thereby produce extra lift.
- There is plenty of evidence
that, in the closing stages
of the Second World War, the Nazis began to
experiment with secret weapons
built around the Coanda effect. Among
the documents in the CIA's "X-File"
archives is an interview
given by a German aeronautical engineer, Georg
Klein, who claimed to
have worked on a flying saucer under the supervision
designers Rudolf Schriever and Richard Miethe.
- Another document from the
archives is a 1950 article
written by a German émigré in
Chile, Eduard Ludwig. The article,
submitted to a Chilean magazine but
apparently never published, was titled
"The mystery of 'flying
discs' -- a contribution to its possible explanation."
recounted Dr. Ludwig's wartime work at a Junkers research facility,
where he helped to develop a "one-piece metal wing" functioning
as a "speedily rotating top" capable of vertical takeoff and
- "The experiments turned out to be extremely difficult
involved many casualties," Dr. Ludwig observed drily, clearly
rueful that the spinning-top experiments had not come to fruition before
the arrival of the Red Army.
- He concluded: "The future will show whether the
'flying discs' are only the products of imagination or whether they are
the results of a far-advanced German science which possibly, as well as
the nearly finished atomic bombs, may have fallen into the hands of the
- Some of the Luftwaffe's top engineers did, indeed, end
Moscow, while a handful, such as Wernher von Braun and Dr. Miethe,
spirited away to the West. Dr. von Braun, of course, became the father
of the U.S. space program. No one seems sure what became of Dr.
his own work at Malton, John Frost seemed to be groping
his way. He was
in search of the aeronautical holy grail of the age, the
takeoff and landing (VTOL) craft, but he began his research on
spade-shaped craft before settling in 1953 on a disc. The original concept
called for a single flat turbojet to draw in air from above and force it
out through nozzles around the edge of the craft. It would be kept aloft
by a cushion of air and pulled upward by the Coanda effect.
- The early work was
carried out in total secrecy; only
a handful of Avro workers were told
what was going on. "It was so
secret that when Frost would come to
the welding shop, he would sketch
the piece he wanted on some paper
and, when we had finished, we had to
put the sketch in a special
garbage bag," Alex Raeburn, Avro's workshop
superintendent at the
- Verne Morse, the company photographer, was made privy
secret only once it had begun to take shape. "There was a stupid
rumour going around the plant that we were building a flying saucer, and
everybody was laughing about it," he says. "Then one day I was
called in by security, and I was told I needed clearance because we were
building a flying saucer.
- "My first impression was that this was
but when he was taken past the guards, through
Project Y's double doors,
and saw the smooth metal disc taking shape,
he was speechless. "It
was a sense of 'Wow!' Just real
- But Project Y's first year was proving troublesome. The
engine blew so hot it melted the steel structure of the craft, and
violent shaking would pop the rivets. When the U.S. Air Force officers
arrived in September of 1953, the Canadian government, having spent
on the project, was glad to hand over the reins to a bigger
Roe, having failed to squeeze funds out of the British
welcomed the Americans with open arms.
- In 1955, Project Y
became the U.S. Defence Department's
weapon system 606A, and a white
USAF star was painted on the prototype's
fuselage. Millions were now
being poured into the project, and the cult
of secrecy deepened yet
- Mr. Raeburn recalls the day in 1959 that the U.S. Navy
take the prototype away for wind-tunnel tests near Los Angeles.
"We loaded it on a flatbed truck in the middle of the night. The
shut off all the traffic right down to Toronto harbour, and they
on a U.S. tugboat. They even had one of our men sworn in to the
so he could go with it, along the Erie Canal, along the New
waterway, and through the Panama Canal."
- With the help of U.S.
financing, Mr. Frost had redesigned
the original concept, placing three
small jet engines around a central
fan that would suck in the air
through a circular intake at the centre
of the disc. The pilot would
sit in a little oval cockpit to one side under
- But the wind-tunnel tests suggested that secret weapon
severe stability problems and was in constant danger of flipping
like a stiff pancake once the throttles were opened on its jets. Mr.
Frost and his assistants tinkered away at the problems for another year,
but had still not mastered them by the winter of 1960 when Spud Potocki,
a former Polish air force flier, took the prototype for its first
- Ernie Happe, another British engineer, was one of the
allowed to watch. "We were standing around it, and it was tethered
with three cables to stop it flipping. It just went up a couple of feet
off the ground, and Potocki was sitting in the cabin fiddling around with
the controls, trying to make it do what it was supposed to."
- Over the next few
months, as Mr. Potocki attained a feel
for the delicate controls, he
was allowed to roam around the Avro compound,
dodging in and out of
hangars. Mr. Raeburn would often look out of his
workshop window and
see it floating by. "He would go up and down and
hover over the
concrete apron and look in the doors of the hangars. I remember
wind would suck the ice off the puddles and they would float around
the air like plates of glass."
- Avro's management was overjoyed
to see its flying saucer
take to the air. The publicity department
began designing brochures to
capitalize on the aircraft's boundless
potential for the day when the shroud
of secrecy would drop away. It
was to be called the Avrocar, and it would
spawn a string of civilian
and military spinoffs. There would be an Avrowagon
for the family of
the future, an Avroangel (an air ambulance that would
zip to the scene
of an accident and land on the spot) and an Avropelican
rescues and anti-submarine warfare.
- Ken Palfrey, a draughtsman on
the project, remembers
Mr. Frost's far-reaching hopes. "He was
planning to make one four
times as big, to move troops in and out of
battle, like helicopters do
- The giant troop carriers would
lurk under the enemy radar,
drop their passengers and then zip into the
stratosphere before the other
side even spotted them. Mr. Happe recalls
Mr. Frost excitedly visualizing
the craft bouncing off the upper layers
of the atmosphere, crossing continents
in a single bound.
- The reality was more
mundane. The Avrocar hovered happily
close to solid ground but became
dangerously unstable at heights over 2.5
metres, however much Spud
Potocki struggled with the controls. The USAF
wanted to fit it with a
tailplane to test whether that would correct the
problem, but Mr.
Frost, a design purist, refused to countenance the idea.
wouldn't have it," Mr. Palfrey recalls. "When the Americans
suggested that, it was about the only time I ever saw him
- Mr. Frost insisted he could fix the problems, but the
military was rapidly losing interest. After spending $7.5-million,
Defence Department pulled the plug at the end of 1961, killing the
Avrocar. Mr. Frost left the country a bitter man. "He was completely
fed up," Mr. Palfrey says. "It was a sad story. He was a fine
guy. A gentleman."
- The designer ended up in Auckland, where he spent the
rest of his days dreaming up gadgets for Air New Zealand, such as a
tail dock to allow engineers easy access to commercial
planes. But it was
small beer compared to the cosmic ambitions of
Project Y, and the sense
of betrayal was as keen as ever when he
finally retired in May of 1979.
- In his valedictory interviews, Mr. Frost told the local
press that he had been robbed of credit for inventing the Hovercraft by
Sir Christopher Cockerell. The irony was that, at Malton, Mr. Frost's eyes
had been so set on the skies he failed to spot the Avrocar's
potential under his nose. Within a few days of leaving
his job, he died.
He was 63.
- The legend of Project Y lives
on in the Web pages of
committed ufologists. Some speculate that it had
been a stunning success,
and the litany of design errors and
disappointments recalled by Avro veterans
was merely a cover story.
Others believe the project was merely a smokescreen
for the Pentagon's
"real" flying saucer project being masterminded
bases such as Roswell, perhaps by mysterious superannuated Nazis
as Dr Miethe.
- As for secret weapon 606A, the prototype is gathering
dust in a
corner of a Maryland warehouse that serves as a storage facility
the National Air and Space Museum. Jack Walker, a veteran pilot who
shows visitors around, cannot understand why anyone would want to see it,
and warns me not to get too close lest I be abducted by aliens.
- The burnished metal
disc, about 15 metres across, is
lying unsung and forlorn under the
wing of a Second World War Black Widow
fighter. The perspex bubble over
the cabin has been removed, and its instrument
panel is in a cardboard
box somewhere else. But you can still see where
the edges were charred
in the effort to get John Frost's flawed vision
off the ground.