Remembering Bryan Martin

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.

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