A 104-year-old Collingwood resident got a jet engine blast from his past at the Edenvale Airport this week.
Gerald McCulloch visited the Avro Arrow replica, and is one of the few people still living who could react with: “I’ve seen it before.”
McCulloch worked for Orenda Engines Limited starting in 1951 – right around the time they started work on an engine for Canada’s Avro Arrow project.
He was an inspector and a foreman at the factory on Derry Road in Malton.
“I was working to inspect fixtures and engine parts. They either passed or they’d get rejected,” said McCulloch. “Part of my job was to reclaim parts that were rejected to see if they could be saved. If they couldn’t be saved, they’d have to be melted down.”
The replica at the Edenvale Airport is one of two in existence. It’s now housed in one of the hangars on the property which serves as a museum.
McCulloch was invited to visit the museum on July 21 because of his work on the Orenda Iroquois engine, part of the overall Arrow project.
The Arrow was created as an interceptor jet meant to be able to engage and destroy the long-range nuclear bombers being developed after the Second World War. It was Canada’s first supersonic aircraft, built to break records.
The Arrow project was cancelled on Feb. 20, 1959, shortly before McCulloch was to have his lunch.
The way he tells it, an announcement came over the PA at 11:45, just 15 minutes before a scheduled test flight, telling everyone at the factory to go home and not come back.
“We were doing what we would normally do that time of day … we were getting ready for lunch,” said McCulloch. “It’s a pity it was ever cancelled.”
He said many of the people working on the Arrow project scattered after its cancellation. The day became known as “Black Friday” for Canada’s aviation industry.
“It was a bad time for a lot of people,” recalled McCulloch.
A couple months later, however, McCulloch was called back to Orenda to continue work on the engine, whose development continued without the Arrow. He worked there until 1982.
“They threw me out! I retired,” he said. “It’s a shame, you go into the same building all those years and nobody takes any notice of you, then once you’re out, you can’t get back in again.”
Even still, he kept his ID badge, which he used every morning to get entrance to the factory. The baby blue laminated card noted his birthday (Jan. 12, 1917) next to a 1956 photo of a half-smiling, blue-eyed Gerald McCulloch, employee number 41010.
Edenvale Airport volunteer Richard Coleman was a bit starstruck by McCulloch as the centenarian shuffled around the Arrow, pausing to remark on the wingspan and craning his neck to make sure there were two engines with after-burners at the back.
Coleman is a retired history teacher and a self-proclaimed Arrow buff.
“I was five when they cancelled the program,” he said. “We lived in the west end and I remember it flying over our house for test flights.”
Coleman stood beside McCulloch for a photo, his grin reached both his eyes and ears.
“Ah, it was so cool to meet Gerald,” said Coleman. “He’s such a nice guy. I’ve never met anyone directly connected to the Arrow project.”
McCulloch downplayed his celebrity status saying he doesn’t understand why people get excited when they learn about his work.
“I think what you have to remember for him is that it was a job. All of us love our work to some degree, but it becomes iconic later on,” said Coleman. “It’s only afterwards when it becomes historical.”
The Richmond Hill resident drives to Edenvale for his volunteer duties, eager to talk to others interested in the Arrow and happy to be close to one of only two replicas in existence.
“It’s one of the great what-ifs of history. Some people said nobody would have bought it … other people say it would have been state-of-the-art and still flying today. It adds to the mystique, the fascination,” said Coleman. “It’s very political. A lot of people still feel strongly one way or the other about its cancellation.”
Though the Arrows of the 1950s were cut up into pieces and the people working on them scattered around the world after the cancellation, the replica has been connecting strangers.
Aura Arias, marketing and museum tour coordinator for Edenvale Airport, said she’s seen separate tour groups visit the replica and learn their fathers worked together on the original project.
“There’s so much passion and so much of a connection with the Arrow,” said Arias. “We’ve just loved seeing people come in here and drop their jaws and talk about how their mom or dad or grandma or grandpa worked on it.”
Volunteer Michael Kirk said it was an honour to welcome McCulloch to the museum.
“It’s rare to see someone from that time, to have that connection,” he said. “That's quite a treat, because those voices are being lost everyday.”
The Avro Arrow 203 replica at Edenvale was built by a group of volunteers over 10 years. It was finished in 2016 and was part of the Canadian Air and Space Museum (CASM) artifacts collection. After CASM lost its place at the Toronto/Downsview Airport, the replica was stored at Pearson under a canvas tarp.
Milan Kroupa, owner of Edenvale Airport, heard about the hidden treasure and set his mind to give it a home at his airport.
In late 2019, he had it brought to Edenvale via transport truck. It took nearly five hours with the jet propped up on its side. The drive had to be made in the middle of the night and its journey was featured on the Discovery Channel show, Heavy Rescue 401.
The replica still belongs to the volunteers who built it, and it remains under the care of Kroupa in Clearview Township.
The museum is open for tours, which can be booked via AvroArrow203.com.