Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Aviation Reek & Space Scatology

Within the industry, Aviation Week & Space Technology has a reputation for hard-nosed journalism that produces timely and important stories about aviation and spaceflight. However, Aviation Week has been known to indulge in rumor-mangering in its quest for bigger and better scoops. On those occasions, the magazine falls on its face and gets back up with two black eyes.

Last week, Dwayne Day used his piece on The Space Review and took the magazine to task for its reporting on "Blackstar" and its previous incarnation, "Aurora." Mr. Day certainly drags the reporter in question, William Scott, through the dirt (and deservedly so.) Mr. Scott apparently lacks the engineering credentials to question what his sources tell him; nor has he relied on competent engineers to fact-check him.

Beyond that, Mr. Day lays out Aviation Week's past failures, like exaggerated range figures for the Soviet Bison bomber and rumors of nuclear propulsion for the lackluster "Bounder" bomber. The magazine even claimed in the early 80's that the Soviets had built a "Tesla Death Ray." I'm certain that Soviet counterintel agents, aware of the magazine's reputation, planted these false stories as a cheap way of getting US defense planners to spend billions of dollars in countering nonexistant Soviet "doomsday weapons."

If there is any satisfaction to be found in the duping of a once-respected magazine, it comes in the form of allegations (yet to be proven) that US counterintel agents played the same game. Space pundit Jeffrey Bell has asserted on several occasions a suspicion that the "Aurora" story was concocted by the US in the 80's to force the Soviets into upgrading their air defenses to respond to a nonexistant threat. The timeline of Aurora stories supports this, with the first mention of the mythological spyplane coming from Popular Science in 1986. At the time, America's technological might was in doubt after losing Challenger. For the Aurora believers, the story came at just the right time.

Yet the shoddy reporting of Aviation Week doesn't just extend to Cold War mind games. I spoke with a retired flight test engineer who dropped her subscription to Aviation Week over a decade ago. Her reason for doing so? The magazine was publishing rosy reports about the operational test and evaluation of the C-17 cargo plane. Aviation Week was getting its stories by talking to McDonnell Douglas employees. The Air Force people involved in the testing knew that the stories were a farce, and that McDonnell Douglas wanted to do things during the test program that would have put the lives of airmen in jeopardy.

I hope to get the rest of the story someday. The rush to save a troubled program (as the C-17 was in its early days, before becoming the fine airlifter it is today) is never an excuse to play Russian Roulette with the lives of its airmen. The sins of the dead McDonnell Douglas should be exposed, if for no other reason than to raise awareness of how responsible flight test should be conducted. And magazines that enjoy the status of Aviation Week should do the hard journalistic work to get the full story instead of covering up corporate recklessness.