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A tribute to Bohn-Meyer, 1957-2005
Oct 21, 2005
Few tasks in life come harder than memorializing a well-lived life cut tragically short.

There's the terrible abruptness of the news. A sudden, inexplicable end to so much promise, the silencing of a voice filled with great zest for living – words and rituals seem hopelessly insubstantial in the face of such loss.

But on those occasions there is also the chance for a redeeming moment, for an opportunity to make sense of a tragedy if only through the promise it holds for those left behind.

Marta Bohn-Meyer prepares for flight in an F-104. Image Right: Marta Bohn-Meyer prepares for flight in an F-104. Beginning in her teen years, Bohn-Meyer's favorite place was in and around airplanes both at work and while off duty. She was an accomplished private pilot and flight engineer, and was the first female crew member to fly at Mach 3 in the SR-71. NASA Photo

Marta Bohn-Meyer's legacy is surely one of those moments. Despite the almost incomprehensible sadness of her loss, she leaves behind the record of a life spent in relentless pursuit of excellence, passion and service to principles larger than herself. She leaves behind a fearless example for living that makes those who didn't know her wish they had, and one that those who knew her owe it to her memory to sustain.

And those who knew her best would say without irony that she'd expect nothing less of all who would mourn her passing.

Marta Bohn-Meyer, Dryden's chief engineer at the time of her recent death, celebrates her successful 1991 first flight at triple supersonic speeds in the SR-71 Blackbird. Image Left: Marta Bohn-Meyer, Dryden's chief engineer at the time of her recent death, celebrates her successful 1991 first flight at triple supersonic speeds in the SR-71 Blackbird. Bohn-Meyer was one of two women ever to fly in the storied aircraft and the only one to do so as a crew member; a congresswoman took a guest VIP ride in 1985. NASA Photo by Jim Bean

Bohn-Meyer, 48, lost her life Sept. 18 near Oklahoma City while practicing for an aerobatic flying competition. In the Giles G300 plane she and husband Bob had designed and had custom-built, she was doing what came as second nature to her: working hard to be the best she could be.

Family, friends and co-workers gathered Sept. 23 in a Dryden hangar – an environment Bohn-Meyer had known well – to pay tribute to the one-of-a-kind woman who, as Center Director Kevin Petersen enumerated, was so many things to so many people.

"We're here to honor Marta," Petersen said in eloquent, heart-felt remarks about the Dryden colleague he'd known for 25 years. "A leader, an engineer, a pilot, a manager, a colleague, mentor, role model, friend, wife and partner, a sister, a daughter and a very special member of the Dryden family. We're here to honor her strength and her commitment to all she pursued.

"We committed lives to this person's judgment every day; she was the last line of defense against complacency. And she never let me – or Dryden – down."

Marta Bohn-Meyer demonstrates aeronautical principles for students at the 2003 Math and Science Odyssey. Among the many activities to which Bohn-Meyer devoted her time was work in the educational environment with students - particularly young girls - interested in pursuing technical career fields. Image Right: Marta Bohn-Meyer demonstrates aeronautical principles for students at the 2003 Math and Science Odyssey. Among the many activities to which Bohn-Meyer devoted her time was work in the educational environment with students - particularly young girls - interested in pursuing technical career fields. NASA Photo by Tom Tschida

Paying tribute to Bohn-Meyer's achievements was complex. Her personal and professional pursuits cut a wide swath through life. She excelled at baking rum cake as well as aerospace project management, at aerobatic flying and restoring classic cars. She was the first female flight engineer to fly to Mach 3 in an SR-71, a milestone that can never be bested.

And in what she may have considered her most important role, she was a devoted and determined mentor for young girls interested in technical career fields. Bohn-Meyer never tired of making appearances in classrooms or other educational environments in hopes of helping young women realize their dreams in fields traditionally dominated by men.

She was Dryden's Chief Engineer at the time of her death, one of several posts she'd attained since coming to the Center in 1979 after graduation from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. The wife of Dryden Associate Director for Programs Bob Meyer, she also served as both deputy director and director of flight operations, as director of safety and mission assurance, deputy director of aerospace projects and project manager for the F-16 XL Supersonic Laminar Flow Control project.

In one of the many partnerships that characterized their marriage, Bob Meyer and Marta Bohn-Meyer test the theory that desert temperatures are hot enough to fry an egg. Image Left: In one of the many partnerships that characterized their marriage, Bob Meyer and Marta Bohn-Meyer test the theory that desert temperatures are hot enough to fry an egg. This "experiment" was staged on the wing of an F-14, but the data they sought was not validated - the egg didn't fully cook. NASA Photo

At the memorial, colleagues from all facets of Bohn-Meyer's vibrant life rose to give testimony to her strength of character, personal discipline, her commitment to exacting detail, her well-known tendency to be opinionated, to the irreplaceable role she played in the partnership she had with her husband Bob. First one and then another reminisced about the ways in which Bohn-Meyer had impacted their lives and the lives of everyone at the Center, which played such a big role in her own life and career.

Retired NASA deputy administrator Fred Gregory recalled the long history Bohn-Meyer shared with the Gregory family, from a family ski trip on which, while charged with watching the Gregory children, she hit a tree on a steep run and broke some bones to when, as a young test pilot at Langley Research Center, Gregory was asked to mentor the new engineer when she arrived in about 1976 for her first job with NASA.

"She was smart, detail-oriented, opinionated and professional well beyond her age," Gregory remembered as his first impression.

Gregory gave her her first ride in a helicopter and her first in a high-speed aircraft, a T-38. It was also Gregory who requested that Bohn-Meyer be allowed to transfer to Dryden, because "she'd met a young engineer (Bob Meyer)."

Over the years, he said, it became a habit for Bohn-Meyer to phone the Gregory house and leave a message saying simply, "99-100," which meant, "Everything is okay. Called you and missed you – if you get a chance, call back."

Deputy Center Director Steve Schmidt followed Gregory to the dais.

"I will remember her incredible wit, determination, her attitude and her big smile," Schmidt said. "She had a colorful personality, and we had plenty of laughs and heated – but good-natured – arguments. She never had trouble giving me advice."

Schmidt recalled a quote frequently summoned when the topic is strong-willed female aviators, putting Bohn-Meyer squarely in the company of such legendary figures as Florence "Pancho" Barnes and Jackie Cochran.

"They say 'A well-behaved woman rarely makes history,'" Schmidt said with a laugh. "Well, Marta is most definitely a legend."

A steady stream of past and present friends and co-workers continued the tribute, from the Fabrication Branch's Ed Swan remembering her as "a hands-on engineer" to former Dryden research pilot Fitzhugh "Fitz" Fulton recalling how Bohn-Meyer had insisted he check her out in taildragger aircraft.

Several shared light-hearted moments, more than one mentioning Bohn-Meyer's famed – and potent – rum cake. Another recounted an incident in which Bohn-Meyer was able to eyeball a disabled Harley-Davidson motorcycle and spot the cause of an oil leak that had eluded the bike's owner in hours of trouble-shooting. And engineer Brent Cobleigh remembered some self-deprecating hi-jinks by Bohn-Meyer dressed for Halloween as a witch on a broomstick.

"She was tough and disciplined," Cobleigh said, "but she really knew how to have a good time."

Retiree Lou Steers remembered the glass piggy bank Bohn-Meyer had given Steers' now 26-year-old daughter as a baby gift. Marva Williams, of the Lockheed Federal Credit Union, lauded Bohn-Meyer's ability to breach the "impenetrable glass box that surrounded her" and achieve success in a male-dominated field, calling her a "take-charge woman."

Representatives from Dryden's Office of Academic Investments paid tribute to Bohn-Meyer for her innumerable contributions to NASA's educational outreach.

Miriam Rodon-Naveira, Chief Science Advisor/Higher Education Director, read letters of tribute from NASA's Chief Education Officer and from the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. Pre-College Officer Michelle Davis called Bohn-Meyer "an icon" with the ability to "make real to people their own possibilities."

"She had a gift for sharing that with children," Davis said, enumerating Bohn-Meyer's work with middle school students in classrooms, in online chat rooms, on personal tours of the SR-71 and with teachers in workshops and events like the annual Math and Science Odyssey at Antelope Valley College.

That determination in helping others realize their potential was brought home eloquently by Dryden photographer Jim Ross. Recalling his first attempt to fly in a T-38 and take photos, in October of 1991, Ross related that the experience made him sick and left him certain he'd be unable to take a job as aerial photographer.

But Bohn-Meyer was having none of it. "Marta engineered everything, you know," Ross said. "She told me, 'you've disgraced yourself by walking away from it,'" rationalizing that if he had been ill only four minutes out of an hour, then that left 56 minutes in which he could shoot photos.

"She believed in me when I didn't believe in myself," said Ross, who now has logged over 400 hours of flight time in his career at Dryden.

Another poignant moment came when Betty Jean Williams, a pilot in the Women's Air Force Service Pilots of World War II, read a poem titled "Celestial Flight" that had been written by a WASP member. The poem's words and imagery seemed to speak heart-wrenchingly to the occasion – and of Bohn-Meyer.

Former Dryden Center Director Ken Szalai lauded Bohn-Meyer's performance as a manager, saying she "wasn't weakened by obstacles, but was strengthened."

He heralded her "real-time crisis-management skills" and her willingness "to push the envelope; she was never afraid to question the status quo."

"She made enormous contributions to Dryden," he said, "because of her mastery and her passion. She gave everything she did her all."

Referring to a well-known photo of Bohn-Meyer taken as she emerged from the cockpit after her Mach 3 flight in the SR-71, he called her "a hero and famous role model for thousands of girls."

"At that moment…she broke the glass ceiling for thousands of young women," he said. "She joins an elite group of female aviators.

"I will miss her very deeply, and hold her memory very close."

Fittingly, final words on the program were offered by Petersen and, in an unannounced appearance, by Bob Meyer. Few in Bohn-Meyer's closest circle had known her better than Petersen, and her marriage partnership with Meyer was of the sort aspired to by many.

As they paid tribute to Bohn-Meyer, Petersen and Meyer also illustrated through their words the real depth of the oft-heard phrase "the Dryden family." Hearing them, a listener understood how completely the notion of family permeates the work environment at what is much more than just another government outpost. The day's event was truly that of a family mourning the loss of one of its most significant and accomplished members.

"Marta made an indelible impression on me," Petersen said in emotional comments that reflected the depth of their friendship. "There was nobody else like her. She was an original."

He returned repeatedly to what he termed Bohn-Meyer's "moral courage," calling it invaluable to her many successes and her approach to life.

"She had both an instinct for caution and a spirit of adventure," he said. "Courage epitomized Marta – it was a unifying force and theme of her life."

That courage infused her career and informed her contributions to the Center, he said. "For Marta, a small technical point differed from a large one only in size, not in importance. She was willing to risk all for the sake of improvement."

Saying he valued Bohn-Meyer's always-unvarnished advice and counsel, he added that "she had little tolerance for ineptness."

Petersen invoked Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel in his tribute, saying that like the humanitarian and Holocaust survivor, Bohn-Meyer aspired to a moral life "through telling truth to power."

"She brandished that moral courage," he said, "against forces of nature as well as in pursuit of excellence in her professional life.

"Her bravery will inspire us always."

The hangar was silent when Meyer rose to speak, those in attendance feeling the weight of his task all too acutely. But he set the tone for his remarks by observing that "Marta was my inspiration. And she would have kicked my butt if I didn't get up here and say something."

Meyer recalled the circumstances of the couple's first meeting at Langley and their courtship, which revolved around working on his airplane. Love developed, he said, through friendship and "being best buddies." Then as until her death, "we did everything together."

In measured tones, Meyer spoke of his wife's "soft spot for animals and people in need" and of her patriotism and love for the flag. He recalled the "four rights" that were her credo – "the right time, the right place, the right enthusiasm, the right qualifications" – and took pains to credit Bohn-Meyer's family, many of them in attendance, for their impact on her life and her many successes.

But it was for his wife's legacy that Meyer reserved the most impassioned of his comments. Honoring her, he said, meant honoring the ideals she held so fiercely.

"So many people are asking what they can do to help," he said. "So I'll tell you.

"You can help by wearing a flag on your lapel, or by calling a veteran on Veteran's Day – call them or go see them, and say thanks for what they did. You can mentor, if you can – you can encourage youth and support education. Help each other, and do as good a job as you can with everything you do.

"Those are the things that meant the most to Marta and will truly honor her memory. Celebrate Marta's attributes through your own life and actions."

Following Meyer's remarks, a final tribute came when Dryden flight crews gave Bohn-Meyer the traditional send-off of a missing-man formation fly over.

Chief Pilot Gordon Fullerton and Marty Trout manned NASA F-18 No. 846, Craig Bomben and Mike Thomson F-18 No. 852 and Frank Batteas F-18 No. 850. As the formation streaked across the lakebed in a cloudless sky, James Smolka and Stephen Corda made an abrupt climb into the heavens in F-15 No. 836.

It was a hard-won gesture of respect by her peers in the exclusive fraternity to which Bohn-Meyer belonged, a gesture she would surely have treasured.

And the seven men under the canopies were watching themselves carefully; they knew an exacting critic was following their every control input.

Sarah Merlin
X-Press Assistant Editor