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Saturday, September 1, 2007

Editor's Notebook: Wheat Among the Chaff

James T. McKenna

I CAME ACROSS AN INTRIGUING story back in June. Seems a tribe in Brazil’s Amazon had dropped its longstanding tradition of avoiding much interaction with the modern world. The reason? Members of the Karitiana tribe had discovered that researchers that had come among them in the 1970s and then again in the 1990s apparently had been bilking them.

The culprits sought samples of the Karitianas’ blood. The second group offered medicine in exchange, but never delivered it. Then the tribe learned the researchers were selling samples of their DNA — at $85 a pop.

What was intriguing was how they learned of this intrusion. This isolated, "backward" people found out through the Internet. That demonstrates pretty effectively, I think, that you’d have to go a long way to find someone today who is not convinced that the Web is a pervasive and powerful tool. Yet it is unclear whether that tool is benefiting the rotorcraft community as fully as it should.

Take what is arguably the most public face of the Web: the Google search engine. On any given day, search "helicopter" on it. You’ll get plenty of results, or "hits." You’ll find information on airframe manufacturers, helicopter associations and museums, how helicopters work, and helicopter games. A good number of hits are likely to concern "helicopter parents" — those who persistently hang around their children at school, like a hovering helicopter.

Shifting gears and doing a news search is just disheartening. On a typical day, most of the hits are going to reference helicopter crashes, with links to stories that provide little solid information. (Most don’t even mention the aircraft type.) That’s unfortunate on two fronts: it’s a miserable public face for this industry, and it offers little useful info for those seeking to make rotorcraft safer.

You may find other tidbits: stories on noise complaints, rescue efforts, and police searches and chases. What you won’t find is a lot of information about what’s going on in the world’s rotorcraft industry, or your corner of it. You may find a number of press releases on helicopter developments, but not much assessing the implications of those developments.

There are helicopter-specific Web sites, some of which are very good. At them you can find good tips on what’s going on with different operators and markets. But you have to have the patience to wade through what often seems an endless stream of insults, abuse, and inside jokes among the regulars of such sites.

I appreciate that ours is a competitive industry in a competitive world. If you want the information bad enough, you’ll build the network and develop the patience to secure it. But champions of the Internet argue that it will level the field and make us more efficient by smoothing the provision of information to everyone. That hasn’t quite happened yet in rotorcraft.

We aim to make our Web site, rotorandwing.com, the place you can come for solid, balanced information on what’s going on in this industry. We’ve been providing daily news briefs on the site for some time. Going forward, we’ll be offering daily briefs of information that you can’t get anywhere else — not the regurgitated press releases or recycled news stories that you find on other sites, but focused insight on an industry development of significance.

We’re also using our Web site to expand Rotorcraft Report, which is consistently the best-read part of the magazine. We try to make every Rotorcraft Report broad and timely, with something for all our readers. But every month there is more than we possibly can squeeze into that section. Starting this month, Rotorcraft Report will include very brief summaries of those other news items, which you can find in fuller form on rotorandwing.com.

You can let us know how well we meet our mark, because our Web site now allows you to post comments about our stories, both those on line and in the magazine.

You can, of course, find industry press releases on the site (as well as have your press releases posted there). Too, you can find there the current issue of the magazine and an archive of past issues. While you’re visiting the site, don’t forget to check out our gallery of reader-submitted photos.

On another matter, I am remiss in offering wishes to a friend and colleague.

Starting in March 2004, Rhonda Scharlat Hughes served as Rotor & Wing’s art director. She guided the efforts and nurtured the talents of our graphic designers (including our current one, Aaron Moody), who take our words and pictures and create with them layouts that ideally draw you into each story and help hold your attention.

Perhaps paramount among that work is the design of each monthly issue’s cover. We don’t sell R&W on newsstands, so strictly speaking we don’t need cover pictures and headlines that grab you more than the publication on either side of ours. But I’ve got newspapers in my blood (my grandfather McKenna was assistant city editor of The New York Tribune in the 1920s). Each month, I tape a draft of our cover on the wall outside my office to see how it looks from a distance and to see how people passing by react to it. I like to grab your attention with a good cover and well-written headline. Rhonda does, too, and for more than three years she was the inspiration behind our covers.

Not a helicopter person or a pilot, she had a simple philosophy. "Helicopters are sexy," she’d say, and she consistently drew that out in our cover designs. She also had a knack for appreciating the most important element of an issue and using a cover’s graphic elements to capture it. More than once, I had a vision for a cover that paled in comparison with the real thing when Rhonda was done with it.

August was Rhonda’s last issue with us. She’s moved on to new challenges. We all wish her luck and envy the editors who get to work with her now.

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