Twenty years ago, on February 1st, 1991, around 6:00 in the evening, veteran LAX air traffic controller Robin Wascher instructed the pilots of the tiny Skywest commuter flight 569, carrying ten passengers and two crew to Palmdale, to enter the runway and prepare for takeoff. Seventy-seven seconds later she gave US Air flight 1493, a Boeing 737, approval to land on that same runway. Inexplicably, and as she confirmed later in testimony, she forgot about the Skywest plane, did not notice it on the runway, and moved onto other matters.
Moments later, the US Air flight touched down near the runway threshold, traveling at 120 miles hour. The Skywest plane was a mere 2400 feet down the runway, unmoving and almost invisible in the dark, and without its takeoff lights lit (it had not been cleared for takeoff yet). Traveling faster than 1500 feet per second, the US Air flight had less than two seconds before it slammed into the tiny plane, collapsing the 737’s front landing gear and crushing the Skywest Metroliner in the process. The Metroliner’s fuel tanks ruptured and exploded and both planes skidded along and then off the runway, on fire, until they crashed into a utility building. And in that moment, we lost my friend, Bryan Martin.
I first met Bryan in September of 1988 at an industry consortium called PDES, Inc. He and I were “grunts” assigned to the Testing team. We got along well from the start, and quickly became friends, something made much easier because he also was from the LA area (Palmdale) and we tended to be on the same Delta flights to and from Charleston, SC where most of the meetings were held.
During the first few months of 1989 I was in the process of staging a revolution in the way the consortium did its work. My soon-to-be business partners and I had come up with a new way for the consortium to meet its technical objectives, and Bryan totally got what we were proposing and was a big supporter and often a contributor in those discussions.
Over the course of the of those next two years, we advanced our agenda at the PDES consortium, got it approved, and changed the way things were being done. It was an exciting time for us all and there was a feeling that we had built something really cool. We had. And without Bryan’s support and guidance it might not have happened.
My partners and I formed a consulting firm (PDIT) right at the peak of this. It was risky and Bryan couldn’t really join us until we became established and could have the sort of reliable revenue that a man with a house, a wife and three kids would need. I had been offered the Technical Program Manager role at the consortium, but I was unable to accept it and remain a consultant. Bryan was then offered the job, and they couldn’t have made a better choice.
The legacy of those long days of work and travel was a seed that we planted together. It has survived and grown, and now lives on as a series of international standards called STEP (Standard for the Exchange of Product Data), also known as ISO 10303. This was all happening before web browsers and while many people had very few of today’s digital marvels. We had 9600 baud modems and big clunky computers. We used MCI Mail and Bulletin Board Systems. We were all internet pioneers, and we helped build today’s digitally connected world of outsourced engineering and manufacturing. The consortium, PDES, Inc., lives on to this day, and the annual award for technical excellence is called the Bryan Martin Award for Technical Excellence. Most of the people who have received it over the years knew Bryan. Some knew him well.
And we travelled a lot. With all of those flights that we were on (every other week, cross-country, except for the rare highly-prized left-coast meeting), we had plenty of chances to talk. Bryan had worked at NASA prior during the time of the Challenger disaster. He had the sort of analytic mind that you would hope NASA had helping them. One day he remarked to me that there was a reasonably significant chance that someone in our consortium would die in a plane crash. We had 90 people travelling 25 weeks per year, usually four flights a week, sometimes more. That’s 9,000 flights per year, probably 30,000 flight hours per year. When you multiply that by the three year planned duration for the project, it boiled down to about a one in ten chance that someone would die. Commuter flights that use turboprops like Skywest 569, are about three times riskier.
February 1st was a Friday, and Bryan was heading back from a meeting in Dallas. That last flight segment home is always the sweetest. It is that moment that you wait for all week. Earlier in that week, on Tuesday, he had come to visit us at PDIT in Long Beach. After a morning meeting, we chatted briefly about how PDIT was doing and the idea that we could all work together someday. When we finished, Bryan and I went out for pizza at a nearby Pizza Hut in Long Beach.
It was one of those overcast and slightly cool days. Sitting there with him, laughing at how our 5-minute Pan Pizzas were taking way more than five minutes, we started talking about life. He started it, and did most of the talking. He explained that his family was the most important thing to him. He told me about his belief that he needed to do good work and do it well. That if he was to start something it guaranteed that he would finish it.
In less than an hour we had eaten and Bryan had given me what felt like his whole life philosophy. I felt privileged that he had opened up to me like that. That was the last time that I saw him. He drove from our lunch to LAX to fly to the Dallas meetings.
On that Friday I was in Vegas. My partner Janet and I were there for a fun and relaxing weekend. Apparently we didn’t even read the paper the whole time. We had no idea that there had been an accident. We had taken the car instead of flying — to relax and enjoy the ride.
When we returned Sunday evening there were over ten messages on our answering machine. The first message was from Brian’s wife, Donna. She said something like, “Hi Jack – I know you guys live near LAX and I heard that there has been some sort of accident and I am worried that Bryan may be hurt….” There were two more messages from her, increasingly strident and concerned, that night.
The rest of the messages on the phone were from Saturday and Sunday. Good friends who knew both Bryan and I were leaving somber messages that offered hints like, “Hi, uh, Jack…it’s Bill. Um, Can you give me a call when you get this? It’s about Bryan.” And just like that, Bryan was gone.
I realized just a few days ago that the twentieth anniversary of this sad moment had just passed. A few Google searches uncovered some reassuring things. They are still doing the Bryan Martin Award at PDES Inc. There is a great Nat Geo documentary on the accident, broadcast in the last year or so and available online. Worth a watch.
But there are no pictures of Bryan, and save for his mention in a few reports and lists of the 34 deceased. There are no recounting of what a wonderful guy he was, and how his smile and sense of humor could light up our otherwise drab discussions of contextually-driven integrated models and the seven possible meanings of missing information. No memorium for a guy who worked on what are now XML-based standards that power commerce. No remembrance for my friend.
So I wrote this. It will be here as long as I am.
Thanks, Bryan, for your friendship and the wonderful time we shared. I, and many others, will always remember you. Farewell my friend.
If you remember Bryan too, please drop me a note on LinkedIn.