A version of this article appeared in IEEE Spectrum Online’s Tech Talk blog on 19 February.
“It’s a small valley,” I heard people saying over and over as, like other Palo Altans, I took to the streets, ostensibly looking for power, Internet access, and hot coffee, but really just wanting to be out among people. It was too strange to be home alone in a cold, silent, and dark office. Just before 8 a.m. on Wednesday, 17 February, the entire town—except a few random traffic lights—lost power when a small airplane crashed into a transmission tower.
At first, while we’d heard there’d been a plane crash, we didn’t feel particularly connected to the crash itself; we were more concerned about the massive power outage and how we could possibly get through the day without the Internet.
Then we heard that the plane was carrying three Tesla Motors employees. Whoa. Tesla is one of our own, a Silicon Valley start-up launched with some of the fortune created by Internet company PayPal—and a company that IEEE Spectrum has followed very closely from the very beginning. And if we didn’t know the Tesla employees on board that plane, we certainly all knew at least one person who did. Forget six degrees of separation—the valley is a lot smaller than that. And the silent day without power no longer felt like a sudden holiday. It was a day of mourning.
Doug Bourn, Brian Finn, and Andrew Ingram died in the crash. Bourn, 56, was piloting the plane. He was a senior electrical engineer at Tesla and an important part of the team that developed the power train for the Tesla Roadster. He liked to explain things—whether it was the ins and outs of the Roadster to a local group of engineers or how to solve a robotics problem to a group of high school girls. Bourn, an IEEE member, spoke regularly at IEEE and American Society of Mechanical Engineers events and was a volunteer coach for the robotics team at Castilleja High School, in Palo Alto. He also taught flying. Before joining Tesla, Bourn spent 10 years at Ideo, the independent design firm behind the original Apple mouse and the Palm Treo.
Finn, 42, was senior interactive electronics manager at Tesla, working on an interactive touch screen for the next-generation car. An IEEE member, Finn previously worked at the Volkswagen Electronics Research Laboratory in Palo Alto; he loved skiing and playing the guitar.
Ingram, who celebrated his 31st birthday two days before the crash, worked at Tesla as an electrical engineering generalist. Coming off his previous post at Dolby Laboratories, he was passionate about audio, but according to Tesla’s blog, he was ”eager to lend a hand wherever it was needed, from marketing to manufacturing.” In his free time he rowed with a local crew team.
The night before the crash, Bourn worked with the girls at Castilleja in a final push to complete their robot; they had only a few days before it had to be shipped to a competition in Oregon. The team worked on after the crash, spending the day fixing a few things and soldering. One team member posted in a blog: ”I remember when [Doug] taught me how to solder. I’m an excellent solderer now—I learned from the best. I think it’s appropriate that I spent today soldering, and even better, teaching other people how to solder. We all wore our safety glasses, and our soldering was wonderful.” Their season continues, but, their Web site notes, Bourn’s loss will be felt: ”Doug was a calming force for the team through all of their ups and downs and was always present at local competitions to cheer the team on.”
There’s an engineering stereotype—engineers just do their work, oblivious to the rest of the world around them—but if you think about what’s been lost with the deaths of these three men, you will know it’s not true.
This article originally appeared in print as "Tesla Tragedy: How Much Engineers Matter."