Andrew Thomas Wade

He loved Vancouver, and jogging along the seawall with his mother. But his real passion became airline safety.
Andrew Thomas Wade
Illustration by Team Macho

Andrew Wade was born in Denver, Colo., on May 26, 1985, at “high noon” on a crisp, sunny day in the Rocky Mountains, as his father, Don, recalls. His sister, Laura, 10 years his senior, clearly remembers how Andrew was full of energy and enthusiasm as a kid. “He was kind of a ham,” she says, describing how her little brother would sing and put on “little performances” for family and friends. “He could probably be considered a handful at times,” she laughs.

Andrew’s characteristic drive to “do everything” emerged early and continued through his childhood. Don and his wife, Julie, a long-time flight attendant, remember watching Andrew tirelessly play on their front lawn with the family’s yellow Lab, named Molson for his fur’s likeness to the Canadian beer. Once Andrew was in school, his parents had to keep their active son busy during the summer. They enrolled him in several rock-climbing, basketball, soccer and lacrosse camps. “He certainly enjoyed all of those,” says Don.

As a teenager, Andrew started making movies. One of them was a 30-minute snowboard video featuring him and his friends carving through powder and going off jumps. “I was blown away by what he did,” says Don, who believes these projects partially inspired Andrew to move north of the border to Vancouver, where he enrolled in film studies at the University of British Columbia in 2003. Julie had been to Canada several times as a flight attendant, and she had fallen in love with Vancouver. Andrew fell for Vancouver, too. “It wasn’t too hard to decide to go up there, even as a Yank going in there with all the Canucks,” says Don. During Andrew’s time in Vancouver, his mother was able to visit him on a regular basis. They would jog the seawall in Stanley Park and go out for dinner. “I treasure those times,” she says.

In 2006, Andrew went backpacking in Europe. The trip fuelled his increasingly insatiable thirst for travel. He soon made it his goal to set foot on every continent before he turned 30. Laura says that whenever Andrew would visit somewhere new, he would proclaim it to be his favourite place. “Every place was just so great in his mind. Nothing could be better,” she says.

Just months before graduating from UBC, Andrew was unsure what his future held in store. But during his last semester, he took a course in visual analytics—a field of computer science that combines analytical reasoning with the visual manipulation of complex data sets. “That changed his whole life,” says Don. Andrew was soon enrolled as a master’s student in the field at Simon Fraser University, where he quickly became a star pupil. “Give me six more like him and I will take over the world,” says Brian Fisher, Andrew’s thesis supervisor.

Fisher’s students apply visual analytics to improve airline safety. For Andrew, his studies of bird strikes on airliners landed him an internship with Boeing, where he made an astonishing impact. In just four months, Andrew’s work on bird strikes, with safety engineer Roger Nicholson, led to changes to pilot training manuals, as well as the design of five Boeing aircraft. “He accomplished an amazing amount,” says Fisher.

While Andrew laboured to finish his thesis with Fisher, he travelled around the world to conferences, where he presented his bird strike research. Sometimes, it got in the way of his schoolwork. “I sent him to Amsterdam knowing full well that I wouldn’t see him for several months,” Fisher recalls with a laugh.

Boeing created a job for Andrew that he would fill after graduation. It was in Seattle, which pleased him since it would be a short drive from Vancouver, a city he cherished, says Don. But before moving there, Andrew went to India for a six-week work placement. On his third week there, the night after he submitted the final draft of his thesis, he flew to Kathmandu for the weekend. Andrew’s sister received an email from him while he was there, excitedly declaring Kathmandu the best place he had ever visited. “Of course, he says about Kathmandu: ‘Now, no, this is really it,’ ” she says.

That Sunday, Sept. 25, Andrew boarded a Buddha Air flight for a scenic fly-by of Mount Everest. As the plane returned from the world’s highest peak, the weather worsened. It went down in a thick Himalayan fog, killing all 19 on board. Andrew was 26. He was awarded his master of science degree posthumously at Simon Fraser’s fall convocation on Oct. 6.