Brian Rowe

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.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “Brian Rowe”

  1. David, an impressive tribute and an important coming of age lesson. I once read that the most important relationships young men can have are with older men either not attached to a fasmily or one genration away. It’s the acceptance and bonding in such relationships that helpd temper us and climb the ladder to adulthood, I think.
    Beautiful post David.


  2. I enjoyed reading your post on Rowe very much and it brought back memories I had of growing up and those special relationships that occur between older men and young boys.

    One summer my father told me of a job opportunity – to mow a large lawn. An insured of his had asked about for someone reliable to help him with his grounds. His name was Dr. Louis G. Howard and he was a semi-retired orthopedic surgeon. He was well known in the insurance industry as an expert witness and he lived off of Eel River Road in Osterville.

    He and his wife lived in a charming house that sat on about four acres of land that backed up to the Wianno golf course. He had been born before the turn of the century and both he and his wife were professors emeritus at BU.

    What started out as a Saturday job to mow lawns turned into a valuable relationship with this interesting man who shared with me his perspective on life based on a history I would never have otherwise experienced.

    His father had also been an orthopedic surgeon. His father’s first wife died shortly after childbirth. His father did remarry, and Louis ended up with three half sisters.

    He would tell me of how Sundays they would not be allowed to dance, play music, or even play cards. He went to a private school where his contemporaries were from all over the world and the sons of the world’s elite. He related how after returning to the school after a Christmas holiday one of his classmates opened a trunk that was packed with caviar. The student was from Russia and his father controlled all the world’s caviar at that time.

    When “the Great War” broke out Louis was all set to postpone his entrance to Harvard University, but suddenly was struck down with Hodgkin’s Disease. It was something that hardly anyone survived. He was treated at the Mao Clinic and recovered – later to become the first person to ever get life insurance after surviving it. It was clear to me that he felt that he had let his country down by not being part of WW One.

    I met two of his sisters once when he hired me to chauffer them to a wedding in New Hampshire. Nixon had just passed a national speed limit of 55 mph and we used Dr. Howard’s large Cadillac for the trip. Louis sat in front and insisted that the cruise control be set to 55. I picked up his sisters just outside of Boston and we headed up to New Hampshire with most of the traffic whizzing by the Cadillac.

    At one point we stopped at a gas station and Dr. Howard left the car to get refreshed. His sisters leaned from their seat at the back of the car and asked how I could stand sticking to 55 mph. I gave them a weak smile and they said “Don’t you just want to floor it?”

    When the winter came and there was no grass to mow or bushes to transplant Dr. Howard would have me come over and polish the brass that he had a lot of around his house. We would also rotate the oriental rugs that covered his hardwood floors. He would tell me about how he had picked them up while he was in Persia and that the fleur-de-lis represented the shape a water hole would take as it dried up in the desert.

    I grew older but still enjoyed working for him when ever he needed me. We were an odd couple. I was a long haired liberal “hippie” and he was an octogenarian with a political outlook just to the right of John Wayne, but somehow we knew that we liked and respected each other. I valued the perspective his life had given him and appreciated that he was able to share with me, and he found amusement in my contemporary lifestyle.

    When you are at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum take a moment to look at the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) that my uncle Willis Leonard was the chief engineer on at Gruman Aircraft. He held several patents that he created while working on the project. Willis passes away just before Christmas 2005. He was the oldest of four children born to Burleigh D. Leonard and his wife Jessie (Boult). His youngest brother, Roger, would pass away seven month later leaving Andrea (known to all of us as Aunt Andy) and my father Philip.

    Willis was an interesting uncle to have as he was the source for Gruman aircraft company brochures that made me a hero in elementary school. He was also an eccentric who insisted that he would not recognize daylight savings time in his house. This forced you to do some quick calculations on what time you were going over to meet with him (he required that you have an appointment). In his last years he contributed his time at the Osterville Historical Society providing demonstrations and lectures in the boat shop.

    My father would tell about how he would go to Welfleet near the Marconi site and drive the tow car that would launch Parker Leonard’s glider. Parker held many worlds records for extended flight prior to WWII, which was difficult since the Germans were subsidized by their government because the Versailles treaty prevented them from having a military air force. Parker was the son of Henry Leonard who was the brother of James Milton Leonard, my great-grandfather.

    Parker would later work at Pratt and Whitney during WWII. There he was impressed with a young engineer named Paul McCready. So much so that he brought him home to meet his daughter Judy Leonard. They married and I had a chance to meet them a couple of summers ago when they visited my aunt Andy. Paul created the Gossamer Condor which now is displayed in the Smithsonian.

    Parker Leonard had a very inventive mind and fortunately had a financially successful father. I had a chance to meet Parker in the 1960’s before he died. He lived in Florida but would sail up to Osterville from time to time. He had designed and built a large catamaran with cabins in both hulls. It was down at Chester Crosby’s so my father and I drove down and I had a chance to explore it.

    My grandfather, Burleigh (know to all as BD), had the Leonard foundry in Osterville at the intersection of Pond Street and Main Street. He died when I was about six, but I remember distinctly the smell of the machine shop with its lathes, milling machines, and cutting oil. He had done well during WWII manufacturing marine hardware from brass castings done at the foundry. He and his father (James Milton Leonard, known as JM) were very active with the fire department and BD invented a pump for the fire trucks that would tolerate pumping salt water and sand, and not burn out after an hour. This was important due to the many forest fires that would plague the Cape prior to WWII.

    If you have ever driven down Parker Road in Osterville you might be interested in how it came to be. There were four brothers in the Parker family and they owned several pieces of property around Osterville. The also were a bit eccentric in their nature. For example, when the brothers wished to have a private conversation amongst themselves they would meet in the middle of a field and stand back to back so they would know if someone was coming in their vicinity that might overhear.

    One brother owned property in what is now Wianno and the other owned property that is basically where the first four holes of the Wianno golf course is. For whatever reason there was an argument between the two and as a result the one who owned the property by Bay Street decided to put in six gates on the dirt road right of way that the brother in Wianno used to get to the village. In the days of horse and buggy that meant that at each gate the brother would have to stop, dismount, open the gate, drive through, stop, dismount, close the gate, and proceed to the next one.

    To avoid the irritation of the gates the brother cut the road now known as Parker Road.

    This entry has gone on a lot longer than I planned. I hope you find it insightful and maybe amusing.


  3. David,

    Thanks for the great post about Dad. I know he loved all of you Churbuck boys like you were his own sons. Your story reminds me of one of Dads’ sayings. “There are three types of people in this world. Those that make things happen, those that watch things happen, and those that say what happened?!”. Every time Dad and I went sailing we ended up saying “What Happened?”. I actually think he had fun running a ground in that channel. He did it three times a year for forty plus years. Thanks again and all the best, David

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