This month, the first anniversary of the horrors of September 11, will surely bring back nightmares to those who lived through or witnessed those tragic events. It is sad that one of the great technological triumphs of humankind could be used for such heinous and outrageous purposes.
A century ago, to soar like an eagle was but a dream for a few eccentrics. Those dreamers combined the aerodynamics of fluids with the chemistry of fossil fuels and the strength of materials to produce our first flying machines.
Bob McCowan calls himself a life-long wheeler-dealer, a "a plunger who always gets in deep."
Schemer-dreamer, however, might be a little more apt for his epitaph, whenever that comes to be given. Roaming again in his old haunts in Toronto this week he was still scheming, still dreaming at the age of 80, with all the faith and fervor he knew in his 20s.
He claims to have built and flown the first all-Canadian aircraft. He also believes he was the first pilot in the (then) British Empire (later Commonwealth) to take to the air in a seaplane. Aviation history books have largely tended to overlook such contributions.
If he is correct about his latest touch of schemer-dreamer negotiating, however, North America may yet salute the name of Robert McCowan. From the depths of a venerable briefcase, he produced a promotion from yesteryear that could hardly be more in tune with the needs of today.
"SAVE 60 PER CENT IN FUEL COSTS" proclaimed his brochure. The name of the company was Aero industries, the address was 328 Dupont. St., Toronto, and the time was World War II. "McCowan rotary fuel oil converter," you read, "is a scientifically designed apparatus that may be installed on practically any internal combustion engine so that the engine can use low gravity oils instead of gasoline. The converter changes the oil into dry gas before being used in the motor."
You do not need to be a genius to realize the potential of such a converter at this precise moment of gasoline crisis. Bob McCowan studied a fading blueprint and chortled with anticipation:
Tests are now being made, he said, in Ormond Beach, Florida., and in his native Nova Scotia, to convert domestic heating oil for pleasure boat use:
The dreams and schemes of Bob McCowan have often raised laughter. Later the McCowan mockers were reduced to displaying a grudging admiration, but by that time he had gone on to work on something that seemed to be equally outrageous. As a child, he watched gulls flying and puzzled, like many another, on their effortless grace. Anatomical studies of the dead birds he found along the seashore helped later in his design of gliders:
To pay for his aviation pleasures, McCowan sold cars and later bought five Fokker seaplanes from the Hudson Bay exhibition of 1929 to form Maritime-Newfoundland Airways a year later. The launching of this airmail service was not without its financial headaches:
The airline was only a partial success and McCowan moved into the more lucrative field of buying and selling surplus planes and parts:
In addition to his World War II oil to gas converter, which he hopes to see become a commercial proposition, Bob McCowan has another unfilled ambition to fly again after 46 years as a passenger.
Long may he be around, from Mexico to the Maritimes, to go on astounding us with his scheming and dreaming.