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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Editor’s Notebook: The Ones Who Really Count

James T. McKenna

LATELY, WE’VE BEEN WATCHING "The Devil Wears Prada" on cable in the McKenna house. My son is keen on Anne Hathaway, the centerpiece of the fashion show that is that movie. I’m not going to lie to you. I enjoy Ms. Hathaway’s scenes, too. But it’s that scene-stealing chameleon of an actress, Meryl Streep, that has me bordering on a movie review here.

She plays the long-reigning editor of a famed fashion magazine who is more important than the magazine itself, those it covers, and especially its readers (who she sustains rather than serves). That particularly struck me as we pulled together this issue’s retrospective on Rotor & Wing’s 40 years of covering the world’s vertical-lift industry. In reviewing those years, it seemed clear to me that what has made this magazine what it is — what is most important in our world — is not the editors or those we’ve covered, but our readers.

You’ll see that in any issue by reviewing the exchange of information among readers on the Feedback page of letters to the editor, and that’s certainly true this month. But this issue offers three other examples of how important our readers are.

The first I will point out is on the opening page of Rotorcraft Report. When we heard that a pre-monsoon season cyclone had killed hundreds and left millions homeless in Pakistan, we knew helicopters would play a crucial role in rescuing and bringing relief to the storm’s victims. Getting the kinds of details on those operations that you want posed a challenge, though. CNN or Agence France-Presse can say, "Helicopters flew to the victims’ aid." They don’t feel the need to specify whose helicopters, what types, and how many — just the kinds of details we figure you want. The people who had those details were busy with rescue and relief operations and answering nonstop questions from CNN, AFP, and a hundred other news organizations. They also were halfway around the world.

We didn’t have a reporter on the ground in Pakistan. But R&W does cover the worldwide helicopter industry, and we have readers in more than 150 countries around the globe, including Pakistan. So we called on one for help. Sohail Ekram Siddiqui, a retired Pakistan army colonel and aviator, had recently submitted a letter to the editor. (It ran in July.) He didn’t hesitate when we asked for local information on the relief operations. His contributions are included in our Rotorcraft Report item.

It’s safe to say that Lee Benson is a long-time R&W reader. Many of you know Lee, from his active involvement in safety and operations forums as senior pilot for the Los Angeles County Fire Dept., his role as a speaker at numerous search-and-rescue conferences, and as an occasional writer for us. Lee has now retired from the fire department and graciously honored our request to inform his fellow readers about developments in public-safety helicopter operations. He debuts this month as the author of our Public Safety Notebook column, addressing the issue of how the very fine management training in the industry would be that much better if it included courses tailored to operators, like those in public safety, who aren’t confronted with concerns about profit and financial loss.

I said last month when we introduced the column, launched so well by our law-enforcement correspondent Ernie Stephens, that Ernie would be succeeded as the Public Safety Notebook’s author by "a veteran of operations" in public-sector firefighting, rescue, and emergency medical services. Anyone who knows Lee Benson would agree, I think, that this was an understated description of him.

As exceptional as Lee is, he is typical of many of you, who are time- and battle-proven experts in your fields (even though you may not realize it). Our privilege for 40 years has been to provide a forum for you to share your wisdom and expertise, which brings us to Brian Swinney, who pens this month’s Safety Watch column.

That column was launched by Tim McAdams, who authored it for three years or so, until he recently joined American Eurocopter’s training operation. We intended for that column to promote the safety of helicopter operations by focusing on particular challenges in flight safety. Tim ably filled that bill, and we thank him again for his work.

One of Tim’s early columns reviewed an EMS accident involving an unexpected run-in with instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). Unbeknownst to Tim, Brian was the pilot. Some of Tim’s comments stung Brian, and still do. But Brian took a constructive approach to his circumstances. Knocked from the saddle by that accident, he eventually decided that he needed instrument and IMC training to be a safe pilot and got it on his own by adding fixed-wing ratings. He worked his way back to the controls of a helicopter, and to a job flying one. Today, he is a base safety pilot in Oklahoma for Ballard Aviation’s EagleMed EMS operation.

Having achieved all that, he then penned a long e-mail to R&W recounting his experience. It rang of a sincere interest in improving helicopter safety, and in doing so by sharing the unique, "There I Was," perspective of an accident survivor — in every respect of the word "survivor." It was a story we felt we must share with you, in large part because it reflects the unique value of the people who make this magazine what it is.

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