Air & Space/Smithsonian

As a rule, I like stuff that is cool, especially when accompanied by a giga-decibel soundtrack of explosions and AC/DC. So the cover of the October/November Air & Space/Smithsonian felt right up my alley, what with its glam shot of the F/A-22 Raptor fighter plane soaring majestically over an ocean blue. Plus anything with a slash or a hyphen in its name pretty much passes the coolness test on its own -- see under "Beavis and Butt-Head." I only wish an umlaut or two were somehow involved.

I'd never read Air & Space/Smithsonian before, owing mostly to the unfortunate connotation of "Smithsonian" in my mind as "boring." Despite my parents' well-intentioned but ultimately fruitless attempts to edumacate (as Homer Simpson might say) me, the Smithsonian brand never quite took. So in a way, my perusal of Air & Space served as somewhat of a reintroduction to the entire institution.

What struck me first was the mag's anecdotal approach. Yes, each of the main features is stuffed to the gills with technical specs, but give the writers/editors credit for couching them in genuinely involving writing. Take the lead for "The Little Engine That Couldn't," which explores the shortcomings of the once-ballyhooed EJ22 commercial engine: "It's August 26, 2002, a clear, hot morning at Albuquerque International Sunport. Poised for takeoff on Runway 17 is a small orange and white twin-engine jet carrying a heavy load of hype and hope." Never mind the gimmicky alliteration at the end -- the economical prose sets the stage skillfully for what follows.

A similar approach works well for a handful of the issue's other features. A recollection on how the U.S. Strategic Air Command remained in a constant state of readiness during the Cuban Missile Crisis captures the tension inherent in what was planned as "a full retaliatory response." And an appreciation of a grass-strip airport located 70 miles outside Manhattan effortlessly conveys the joys that aircraft aficionados find in their hobby.

Where Air & Space falls short is in its design, which is surprisingly retro for a title boasting such abundantly illustratable material from which to choose. An item chronicling the landing of the Huygens probe on Saturn's moon begins with the following call to arms: "Savor the pictures on the next few pages. Spend some time with them." Readers, however, generally enjoy doting over smudgy, relatively teensy photos as much as they do quaffing a nice aperitif of windshield-wiper fluid.

Similar design-oriented problems mar the "Above & Beyond" piece on the U.S. Fourth Fighter Group, accompanied by a crunched illustration that lines the bottom of one page, and an otherwise fascinating look at collectors of stock certificates from companies like Lear Jet Corp. The latter story enthuses about the artful "vignette" sketches on many of these certificates, but what's the point in noting them if they can't be reproduced in a comparably artful manner?

So while Air & Space may boast enormous authority in its voice and welcome creativity in its story choices, it's hard to give it more than a tentative nod until it enters the new century from a graphic perspective. It won't take much -- a dab o' color here, a non-boxy font there -- and, if done well, a revamp should propel the mag into the stratosphere. "Stratosphere," Air & Space... Get it? Get it? Oh, never mind.

(The magazine is actually the official publication of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.)

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