Last week a close family friend passed away, the father of a good friend, and a good friend to my mother and my late father. His name was Brian Rowe, he was an extraordinary man, the personification of “larger than life.” He’s the big guy on the left in the photo below.
Brian Rowe will go down as one of the most important figures in modern commercial aviation. He was English, literally a boy genius, who at the age of 17 went to work at Britain’s deHaviland where he worked on the first jet engine technology captured from the Nazis. He emigrated to the United States, joined General Electric, and by the end of his career was the Chairman of GE’s jet engine division. Rowe was the man at the center of GE’s battle against Pratt Whitney, the executive who pushed the advances made in fighter engines into commercial aviation, and who led the team that developed one of the most important engines in modern aviation, the CF6.
The Wall Street Journal printed a remembrance on its front page last Saturday. From it, I quote:
“Former colleagues say his biggest technological accomplishment was the giant GE90 engine, the world’s largest and most powerful jet engine that now powers the long-range versions of the Boeing 777. That engine, whose outer diameter is roughly the same size as the fuselage of a single-aisle Boeing 737 and pioneered the use of lightweight composite fan blades, made it possible to go “undreamed-of distances on two engines,” says Mr. McNerney.
“The most recent version powered the Boeing 777-200LR that set the record for the longest nonstop commercial flight in 2005 when it flew from Hong Kong to London the long way. The flight crossed over the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. and the Atlantic Ocean, staying aloft for more than 22-and-a-half hours and covering a distance of 13,422 nautical miles.
“Former GE Chairman Jack Welch was among those who had reservations about the GE90. “Brian had total confidence in it,” Mr. Welch said yesterday, but “we were scared death of the technology. It was the first engine with the composite blade. It was going through the bird test and failing,” he added, referring to a test where air cannons fire dead chickens into the engine to simulate birds being sucked into engines during flight.
“The engine helped Boeing outsell Airbus in the market for large twin-aisle aircraft by a 2-to-1 margin. “It was the gutsiest call I’ve ever seen at GE,” says David Calhoun, a former GE vice chairman and formerly head of the aviation unit. “It’s changing the face of the competition between these two great giants,” he adds, referring to Boeing and Airbus. Mr. Rowe pushed both Boeing and GE to move ahead on the 777 design with two GE90 engines. He “had to convince Jack Welch it was something he could do and it wasn’t too risky. He had to convince Boeing it was a bet worth making,” says Mr. Calhoun, now CEO of the market-research firm, Nielsen Co.”
When I was 11 years old, Brian Rowe had a rare day off and wanted to go sailing. He called around and my father volunteered me to be his crew. Off we sailed into Nantucket Sound. I remember it was a breezy day, but the two of us could handle the boat just fine. He tied knots into the four corners of a handkerchief and made a funny hat he wore on his head to protect it from the sun. He reminded me of the actor, Terry Thomas, with a huge smile minus the gap in the front.
We had such a good sail that we stayed out late into the afternoon, until eventually we made our way into the harbor. Mr. Rowe was new to the Cape, and didn’t know the channel very well, and I was too timid to tell him he was out of the channel, so we ran aground, hard, on a falling tide. We jumped over the side and tried to push the boat off the sandbar, but that didn’t work. So we climbed back aboard and ate some crackers and resigned ourselves to an evening aboard until the tide turned and floated us off.
Then Leonard Peck came by in his tugboat, the Francis Minot, and offered to tow us off. He threw a line to me but the line was too big to tie around Mr. Rowe’s boat’s bow cleat. Mr. Rowe told me to tie a thinner line to Mr. Peck’s bigger line. Knowing my knots from Junior Seamanship, I knew the right knot for tying two lines of unequal diameters was a sheetbend.
I tied the sheetbend, made the lighter end fast to the cleat, and then sought refuge in the cabin in case the line parted and came shooting back. I looked out the companionway at Mr. Rowe, standing tall at the tiller, and as we slid off the sand saw his huge smile beam.
“You can come out now,” he said, so I went back to the bow and made ready to give Captain Peck his towline back.
The knot was frozen tight and there was no way I could get the lines to separate. So Brian came up and made a try, but the bend was frozen in place.
“Cut the thing and be done with it,” said Captain Peck. So we found a knife and sawed the lines apart.
“That’s one impressive goddamn knot,” Mr. Rowe said on the way into the mooring. “You’re quite the sailor.”
For some reason that piece of simple praise has stuck with me ever since. At the age of 11 the whole incident had high drama, and Mr. Rowe was the first adult to let me do my thing and assume I could do it. I’ve been inordinately vain about my seamanship ever since. I had no idea the man was a titan of aviation until much later, but the friendships formed with him, his wife Jill, and his children, David, Penny and Linda were more impressive.
A memorial service will be held at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington next month.