Robin Sipe isn't just a patriotic history buff with an interest in aviation and turbine engines. He is actually a small part of the tale of one of his favourite aspects of Canadian aerospace history - the ill-fated Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow that was developed by Ontario's Avro Aircraft during the fifties.
The Arrow program was cancelled and the aircraft were destroyed in 1959. However, one of the Orenda Iroquois engines that were built to power the Arrow quickly found its way to Great Britain after the project's demise, where it would stay until Sipe was able to bring it back to Canada about fifty years later.
Sipping coffee from an Avro Arrow mug in the Fort St. John home of his turbine engine maintenance company, S &S Turbines, Sipe told the story of how that famous engine came to be in his possession. That story began at the moment when the Arrow's story came to an end. At that time, Orenda's parent company, British manufacturing firm Hawker Siddeley, took one of the Iroquois engines to Bristol Aerospace in Britain to test its capabilities during the development of a new British fighter jet, the TSR-2, which suffered a similar fate to the Arrow.
"The engine was tested in 1959 and 1960," said Sipe. "And it surpassed all of their expectations. Actually, that engine ran flawlessly."
The Iroquois set performance records that wouldn't be broken until the United States introduced the SR-71 Blackbird in the mid-sixties.
"It was truly a fantastic engine," said Sipe, adding that it was subsequently taken to Cranfield University for study purposes after testing.
The Iroquois spent the next part of its life in Royal Air Force museums in Britain until Sipe was able to acquire it in the fall of 2010. The path toward that acquisition really began in 1978, when Sipe started a nearly twenty-year career with Westcoast Energy - now Spectra Energy - that eventually revolved around the turbine engines used to pump petroleum products through the pipelines.
"A lot of people don't realize what turbines are used for," said Sipe. "All of the big inch pipeline around here - generally, any pipeline 18 inch and larger in the entire Peace River country - use turbine engines to move the natural gas. A lot of people don't realize that. They think that natural gas just moves down the pipeline by itself. That's not true. There's a lot of frictional loss in pipelines and you have to have engines to move that gas along down the pipe."
Sipe explained that Spectra Energy has turbine engines pumping the natural gas at intervals of approximately every 100 kilometres along the pipeline. He accepted a position supervising the company's turbine overhaul facility in Charlie Lake in 1991, continuing to do the job until 1997, when he finally broke out on his own. It was during that period that he learned of an opportunity to acquire an Orenda Iroquois engine that had been part of the Arrow program.
"I was attending a turbine conference in Ontario, California in 1996," he said. "And one of the fellows overheard me talking about various turbine engines pumping natural gas. So, he introduced himself during a break. And he says, 'I understand that you work for Spectra Energy.' And he said, 'What turbine engines do you use?' And I mentioned the various [General Electric] models and Rolls Royce models. And he says, 'Well, we have Rolls Royce engines in the [United Kingdom] that we'd be interested in selling for parts.' And he wanted to know if Spectra Energy would be interested in looking at these parts. Two months later, I made the trip to the U.K. to look at these Rolls Royce parts. We made a deal. We purchased some of them to support Spectra Energy's Rolls Royce turbines pumping natural gas."
"We had a couple extra days before I flew back to Canada," Sipe continued, "and he wanted to know if I wanted to go to Duxford Air Museum, which is just outside of London. A fantastic aircraft museum."
The museum had a display on the TSR-2 aircraft.
"And he commented about how that program was canceled and it was a loss to the British aerospace industry," said Sipe. "And I commented that we had a similar program in Canada called the Avro Arrow and the Orenda Iroquois engines. And this fellow, he says, 'I know where there's an Iroquois engine.'"
Sipe had strong doubts about that claim, but the other man explained that he had seen the engine as a student at Cranfield University and was quite certain that it still existed. He investigated the matter and discovered that it was being held in a Royal Air Force storage facility. Additionally, the Royal Air Force was willing to return the engine to Canada if there was a valid proposal to acquire it. The only complication was that they were unable to sell the engine because it was a museum piece held in public trust. They could only accept a trade.
"I submitted half a dozen different proposals, different turbine engines and different things, and they weren't interested in any of that," said Sipe.
Eventually, the Royal Air Force discovered that there was an airframe for an old Handley Page Hampden aircraft - a model used for training purpose during World War II - that was sitting in Victoria.
"And they were currently trying to restore a Hampden in the U.K.," said Sipe. "And [they] were missing some airframe parts."
The airframe in Victoria had exactly what they needed to finish the project.
"They said, 'You purchase that airframe and send it to the U.K., we will trade you for that Orenda Iroquois.' So, I did that. I went and I purchased the aircraft," said Sipe.
"I also purchased a 40-foot sea container," he continued.
The airframe was dismantled, loaded into the container and shipped to Britain. When the container returned to Canada, it contained an Orenda Iroquois engine.
It was already in Canada when Sipe received a phone call from Canadian Heritage.
"They said, 'We understand that you purchased an aircraft and are wanting to ship it to the U.K.,'" he recalled.
"And I said, 'No, that's not entirely correct.' I said, 'I purchased it and I already shipped it.' And they said, 'Oh, you could be in big trouble for that. Because, in Canada, anything of historical significance, before it leaves Canada, you have to fill out an application. Even if you own it, you have to fill out an application to remove that material from Canada.'
"And I said, 'Well, it's already gone. Sorry.' And so she was quite upset. And she said, 'Well, if you don't mind me asking, did you sell it or did you trade it?' And I said, 'I traded it.' 'What did you trade it for?' I said, 'I traded it for an Orenda Iroquois.'
"There was a long pause on the phone. And I said, 'You know what that is?' And she said, 'Oh, yes.' She said, 'You made a good trade. But in the future don't ship anything outside of Canada without first filling out the application form.' And so I went ahead and did it, and I begged for forgiveness afterwards."
Sipe is now in the process of restoring the old engine, quite certain that he can get it to run again. For him, the project isn't just about restoring the engine, however.
"Current generations of people don't realize the potential that we had, the potential that we still could have today," he said. "Canadians, we tend to be a self-doubting lot, and we don't realize the greatness that we can achieve if we simply put our minds to it."
"I don't bemoan the loss of the Avro Arrow or the Orenda Iroquois," Sipe continued. "But what I would like to do is restore some of that former glory. And that is my plan, to take that engine and to reassemble it. And, one day, that engine will run again. I have the resources available to me to reassemble that engine. And one day that engine will run again."
"Just to hear one of those Orenda Iroquois engines run," he concluded. "Because it was a fantastic engine. Even by today's standards, it was a very powerful engine, and very impressive in its own right."
The recent discovery of an ejection seat the same as those used in the Avro Arrow in Britain has re-ignited talk about one of the aircraft escaping Canada, but Sipe isn't among those who believe that could be true.
"I'm not a conspiracy theorist," he said. "Of the Mark 1 Arrow airframes, only five were produced. And there are clear pictures shown of those aircraft being cut up and disassembled on the flight line. When the program was cancelled in February, 1959, the government ordered that the aircraft be scrapped, the blueprints be scrapped, tooling and everything. And there's an extensive photographic library of that scrap process."
According to Sipe, one of the Mark 2 Arrows - serial number 206 - was just days away from taxi trials, but still far from ready for flight trials.
"So, the Mark 2 Arrows," he said, "there's no way they would have flown without several months of additional preparation. Serial number 207 and 208 and so on, they were literally months away from being ready for flight trials. And there are clear pictures of them being cut up. So, I have no doubt in my mind that none of the Mark 2 Arrows survived scrapping. There's clear pictures and clear evidence of them being scrapped."
The only mystery that remains for Sipe is the fate of Mark 1 Arrow with the serial number 202, which had been moved into its own hangar for repair after suffering a collapse of the landing gear.
"There's a picture of it being pushed out onto the flight line after project cancellation in February, 1959," said Sipe. "But in all subsequent pictures, that aircraft was no longer in the pictures. It disappears. And I say there's clear pictures of the Mark 1 Arrows being cut up on the flight line. That's of four airframes - serial number 201, 203, 204, 205. 202 is not in those pictures. So, in my mind, there's only one mystery. And that is where did 202 go."
However, Sipe considers that a small mystery because the Mark 1 Arrows were only test aircraft with minimal fuel capacities.
"It wasn't physically possible, in my mind, for them to fly an Avro Arrow to the U.K.," he said. "It would have to have taken a series of short hops. Malton to Toronto. Toronto maybe to Gander, Newfoundland. Gander - it didn't have enough range to go anywhere else."
Reykjavik, Iceland was a possible destination, but Sipe doesn't believe the Arrow could have made it that far.
"It didn't have the range," he explained. "They simply would have run out of fuel. There's nowhere they could have flown it. If an Avro Arrow went anywhere, it would have went into the United States. Plus, it's a very big aircraft. People don't realize how big an Avro Arrow is. No matter where it would have went, it's a very hard aircraft to hide for this amount of time. And why would anybody do that. No, in my mind, the Arrows were all scrapped. A tragedy, yes. But due to the political and economic climate of the time, it was understandable why the program was canceled."
The appearance of the ejection seat - which instigated an eBay bidding war - isn't a great mystery for Sipe either.
"The ejection seats were built by Martin Baker," he said. "And there's nothing unique about an Avro Arrow ejection seat. It's the same as any other Martin Baker ejection seat built in that time period. When Avro was building the airframes, they simply went to Martin Baker and said, 'We need some ejection seats.' Now, it was the same seat as used in a Buccaneer or a Phantom or a Starfighter or anything else. There's nothing unusual about an Avro Arrow ejection seat."
The serial number on the ejection seat matches the seat that was installed in the Arrow with the serial number 206, the same aircraft that was just about to begin taxi trials when the program was brought to its abrupt end.
"Because there's pyrotechnics in those seats," said Sipe, "when you scrap an aircraft, that's the first thing that's going to be taken out, is those ejection seats. You don't want them going off and killing somebody. So, that's the first thing they do is they pull out the weapons systems, the radars, the ejection seats, this kind of stuff. So, the seat would have been taking out of RL-206 immediately.
"And I suspect, again, that the parent company of Avro Aerospace was associated with the company in the U.K. that was developing the TSR-2. So, they said, 'Look, there's these brand new ejection seats. They're not going anywhere. Can we borrow them?' Just like the Orenda Iroquois."
Sipe left Spectra in 1997 to start his own business, which consisted of selling turbine parts from his basement at the time.
"That's simple," Sipe said when asked why he made the move from Spectra to his own business. "It's money. I enjoyed my job at Spectra Energy. It was a fantastic job. The six years that I supervised their turbine overhaul facility, it really was a fantastic job. And I had an excellent boss at the time. He allowed me free rein to modify those turbine engines as I saw fit.
"I was given a mandate back in 1992. They said make our turbine engines run reliably, make them run cost efficiently, and we don't care how you do that. But go ahead and do that. So, it was a fantastic job where we could research the construction of these turbine engines and develop ways to improve the operating cycle, improve the reliability, improve the efficiency. It didn't take too long for me to realize that I could be doing this for other companies as well as Spectra Energy. So, at that time I decided to form my company and offer these same services to other pipeline companies as well."
In the last fourteen years, his business has grown from that modest beginning to a family of companies.
"S& Turbines, which concentrates on General Electric turbine engines for electric generation, gas compression and military aircraft," said Sipe. "We have Applied Combustion Technologies, which is our test cell at the [Fort St. John] Airport. That's where we test run all the engines. We have Maddex Turbines, which supports the Rolls Royce products, Solar, all the non-GE products. We have Jet City Turbines, which supports private aircraft, private collections, and older warbirds."
The company even has a new extension for which they are building a shop in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to service turbine engines throughout the Middle East. They also have a casting facility in Vancouver where they manufacture turbine components.
"Not only do we service turbine engines," he continued, "but we also do a lot of research and development for improving the efficiency of the turbines, making them run more efficiently, more reliably, more power."
Reducing emissions of nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide are also a focus of their research and development efforts.
Sipe credits that willingness to do the necessary research as the key reason that he has been able to grow that initially small venture into such a large and successful enterprise.
"You have to know your customers," he explained. "You research the product that they're operating. And in the case of the big inch pipeline, they're all operating these turbine engines. And they're all aircraft engines. Again, people don't realize that a lot of these turbines pumping gas are all converted turbine engines.
"So, you need to research and find out exactly what model of aircraft engine these engines are derived from. And then you find sources of these aircraft engines and parts. And in the case of Spectra Energy, the engines that they operate on their pipelines are all derived from military aircraft. And most of those military aircraft are now retired and no longer in active service. There's lots of these retired aircraft engines sitting in storage as military surplus, as government surplus.
"That's how I've built my business, doing a lot of research to what the customers are running, finding these surplus military aircraft engines, purchasing them, removing the parts and refurbishing them, and selling them back to the customers, like Spectra Energy."
Sipe believes that Fort St. John has been the perfect location to grow that business, too, and not just because the oil and gas industry accounts for approximately 70 per cent of his gross annual revenue.
"Our customer base isn't necessarily situated anywhere," he said. "We're truly an international company. We pull engines out of South America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Canada, the United States. And I get asked that all the time: 'What are you doing in Fort St. John? In the middle of nowhere?' And my response is: 'No, we're in the middle of everywhere. You're in the middle of nowhere.'
"Truly, Fort St. John is in the middle of everywhere. Because it's here in the middle of the oil and gas industry. And Fort St. John is a very unique town in that in five minutes drive, literally, I can access any number of industrial supply shops. We have fantastic shops here. Weir [Canada] is one of the biggest and most productive machine facilities in the world.
"We have all of these industrial supply companies. Hydraulics. Fittings companies. Hose shops. Fort St. John is truly unique in that, in the industry we're in.
"In the oil and gas industry, we have access to virtually everything we need. If there's some little part that we need and we don't have here in Fort St. John, we can access it from Edmonton or Calgary, and have it delivered within 24 hours. You can't do that anywhere else in the world."
"If you live in Houston, Texas," Sipe continued, "right in the middle of the American oil and gas industry, it's not as accessible as it is here. So, Fort St. John is a great place to run a turbine business such as this. The other factor is we run our test cell at the Fort St. John Airport, which allows us a lot of latitude in running our turbine engines. Our competitors aren't allowed nearly the same latitude to test run their engines."
Fort St. John's remote, northern locale is also an advantage, according to Sipe.
"Everything here gets distilled," said Sipe.
"If you could pick the oil and gas industry that is here - this whole Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin - [and] you moved it 800 miles south, Fort St. John wouldn't be 22,000 people," he continued. "It would be 220,000 people. It would be 2 million people.
"Being up here in the north has clear advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is everything becomes very distilled here. There's very few superfluous businesses here that aren't necessary to the survival of the community or the survival of the industry. If you were to literally pick this area up and move it 800 miles south, 1000 miles south, where the weather is more agreeable, we would have five, six, maybe ten times the population that we do. And then you would have all of these extra - what I call superfluous - businesses.
"Being here, it amplifies exactly what is needed to get the job done. So, you end up with a distillation process where you end up with the very best people doing the best job possible with what they have."