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A Tale of Two Letters - by Steve Bridgewater

Posted by Scott Sullivan on

Aviation author and editor Steve Bridgewater looks back at two letters that changed the course of his life and his career. He also reflects on two decades of magazine editing and gives tips on how to get your words and photographs accepted for publication.

I was a shy kid, from a small town. I never excelled at school but at the same time I was not at the bottom of the class. I was a ‘Straight C’ student. Neither was I the sportiest of kids - but at least I wasn’t the last to be picked during team selection.

However, it turned out that there was one thing I ‘could’ do reasonably well – I had an aptitude for flying radio-controlled model aircraft. By the time I was 14 I held both my British Model Flying Association ‘B Certificate’ (effectively a display authorisation allowing me to fly in public events) and my instructor rating.

Where it all began – Steve visiting the Aerospace Museum at RAF Cosford as a child

I’d grown up with a love of aeroplanes. My first word was reputedly ‘plane’ and I dragged my long suffering father to airshows and airports to watch aircraft at every opportunity. Nobody knows where this addiction came from. There’s no aviation history within the family; both of my grandfathers were coal miners so served below ground during the war (as opposed to in the skies). My father left school at 14 to become an apprentice tool maker at the Reliant car factory and worked his way up to become a test driver as part of the Scimitar and Bond Bug sportscar projects. He raced stock cars, crashed motorbikes, built a speedboat and then taught himself to water-ski using homemade skis.  It was expected that I’d be a ‘petrol-head’ like him, but nobody knows where the aviation link came from.

In my teens I was happiest at the model flying field; either trying to perfect a new manoeuvre, test flying somebody’s new aircraft or teaching a student. My father flew a little but his eyesight left a lot to be desired so he was content mewing the airstrip or ‘tinkering’ in the club house.

Although I proved to be a competent aviator my modelling skills left a lot to be desired. My father always joked that I didn’t know one end of a screwdriver from the other; and he had a point. I was/am rubbish at anything practical so we developed the perfect relationship – he would build, I would fly, I would crash, he would mend!

As Steve got older, so his aircraft got larger!

Throughout this time I would still describe myself as a shy kid. I was happy to let my flying do the talking for me. I didn’t really ‘come out of my shell’ until I decided to stay on at school to study for A’ Levels in the Sixth Form. There were only about 15 of us who did so and we became a close-knit group. We studied together, socialised together and partied together. Thanks to the leadership of some tremendous teachers – most notably my form teacher ‘RJ’ (Mr Rees-Jones) and Head of Sixth Form Mrs Hartley – I found my personality and without several hundred other kids competing for attention I soon developed friendships that would last a lifetime.

Opening Doors

So why am I telling you my life story? Well, I hope it will put into context what I did next. You see, at the age of 17 and about to sit A’ Levels in Geography and Economics, I wrote a letter that would change the course of my life.

I read in the local newspaper that a local pilot called Ken Broomfield had acquired a Tiger Moth and was flying it from an airstrip on his farm. I had been considering building a model of a Moth for some time (well, getting my father to build it – but you know what I mean!).

I thought it’d be nice to build a miniature version of this locally based example but in those pre-internet and social media days there were just three ways of contacting a stranger: I could look up his phone number in the telephone directory (remember those?), I could turn up unannounced at his front door, or I could write a letter. I chose the latter.

A couple of weeks later I found myself walking around his hangar, snapping photos of the bright red Moth and talking enthusiastically. Ken said he was planning a fly-in and open day at the airstrip in a few weeks’ time and asked if I would like to bring some of my model aircraft to fly for the public. I jumped at the chance.

The first of Steve’s “important letters” was to Ken Broomfield, who based his red Tiger Moth on a farm strip near where Steve grew up.

This became a regular arrangement and over the next couple of years I got more involved in the organising and running of these events. I applied for and organised flypasts by aircraft from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and the event grew in size and stature.

Then, in 1994, we prepared to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day at the airstrip. The BBMF sent a Spitfire to give us a few flypasts, Air Atlantique provided a Dakota to beat up the airfield in enthusiastic fashion and Ken arranged for aerobatic pilot Denny Dobson to give a display in his Pitts Special.

Denny Dobson prepares to take off for his display at Baxterley farm strip in 1994. It was Steve’s commentary on this display that led to an invitation to work closer with the display pilot.

At some of our previous events I had been roped into doing a little impromptu commentating – telling the visiting public about the various light aircraft that were coming and going. But for this much larger event a few strings were pulled and favours cashed in; as such we had the FlyPast commentary booth on site. This was manned by John Swain (who now organises the Little Gransden Airshow) and FlyPast editor Ken Ellis. I was invited to join the team to give them the benefit of my knowledge of the airfield and local pilots.

Talking to the public in the FlyPast commentary box in 1994. Six years later he interviewed for a job at FlyPast magazine – and his commentary was remembered.

The event was a great success – one of the highlights being the rip-roaring ‘display’ by the BBMF Spitfire IIa (P7350). The pilot had called up en route to say that he was running late and would only be able to give us a single flypast, rather than the two or three he would normally offer. Any disappointment soon abated 20 minutes later though when the radio crackled into life again and the Spitfire pilot explained that he had been forced to turn around due to weather and couldn’t reach his display (Southport if I recall correctly). He asked if we would like him to display for us instead…? He then spent the next 15 minutes beating up the airfield at low level, culminating in a victory roll over the top of the farmhouse! An impromptu ‘whip-around’ collected several hundred pounds for the BBMF and we presented them with a cheque a few weeks later.

As an aside; the Monday morning after the fly-in I received a phone call from Denny Dobson asking me to become his airshow commentator and I spent a couple of happy years travelling to airshows, carnivals and country shows in support of Denny and the his Skybird Aerobatics organisation.

My negotiations with Air Atlantique to get the DC-3 flypasts at our D-Day event also led to greater things and I soon became a regular volunteer with the Air Atlantique Historic Flight, helping organise events and acting as a hangar tour guide during open days.

That nervously written letter by that shy kid had paid off, but little did I know the letter’s influence would return some years later…

In Pursuit of Heroes

Fast forward to the spring of the year 2000 – almost exactly 20 years ago. By then I had succumbed to adulthood and found myself a ‘real job’. From Monday to Friday I was working for an IT company and had spent much of the previous year preparing for the much feared Millennium Bug.

I lived for the weekends when I was still doing the occasional airshow commentary and helping out at Air Atlantique.

Back then, the internet was almost unheard of and the only way of obtaining information about the warbirds and vintage aircraft I had come to adore was to read the news pages in magazines such as FlyPast, Aeroplane Monthly and Aircraft Illustrated.

I would read, re-read and then (just to be safe) read again every news piece, feature or article about the aircraft I obsessed about. As I child, I had cut the photographs of my favourite aeroplanes from the magazine pages and pinned them to my bedroom wall. Whereas some kids had posters of footballers or popstars on their walls I had images of Spitfires, Mustangs, Warhawks and the pilots who flew them. There was nothing I couldn’t tell you about Ray and Mark Hanna, Spencer Flack, Stephen and Nick Grey, Al Walker, Chris Bevan, Lindsay Walton, Pete John and a myriad of other ‘Sky Gods.’

Likewise, the names of the authors who wrote about these men and their machines were etched into my mind. In my imagination the likes of Ken Ellis, Ken Delve, Mick Oakey, Peter R March, Robert J Rudhall, Malcolm English and photographers such as John Dibbs, Duncan Cubbit and Steve Fletcher sat on a higher plane. They worked in ivory towers, surrounded by archives and libraries that we mortals could only dream of accessing. They were the elite, the wordsmiths with their fingers on the pulse and the fonts of all knowledge.

And so it was, in March 2000, that FlyPast advertised for an Assistant Editor. My ever-encouraging father suggested I apply; but I pointed out that a “sound grade C” in English was probably not what they were looking for. To his credit, he continued to try to persuade me and suggested that my subject knowledge far outweighed any deficiencies in my grammar.

The advert called for applications to be accompanied by a small illustrated news item. As it happened, I had just visited Duxford and photographed the Blenheim wearing a temporary colour-scheme for the John Dibbs photoshoot.

To end the parental badgering I penned a hundred words about the photograph and sent it in to ‘FlyPast Towers’ along with my CV and the second letter that would change my life.

Incredibly, I received a reply inviting me to an interview…

Driving to the interview that sunny day in May 2000 I remember thinking to myself “If nothing more, I would finally get to see ‘FlyPast Towers’.” My heart raced as I passed Burghley House (home to the annual horse trials) and arrived in the beautiful Georgian town of Stamford. I would later discover the town was the first conservation area in England and was regularly used as a filming location for period dramas such as Middlemarch and Pride & Prejudice. So which of these stunning buildings was ‘FlyPast Towers’…?

I passed slowly through the town, following the written instructions that had been faxed to me (there was no in-car sat-nav or Google Maps on a smart phone in those days!). I emerged out the other side of the town and found myself in an industrial estate. There, opposite the builders’ merchant and next to the tyre and exhaust centre was a low, sprawling office with a small nondescript sign above the door. It was not exactly what I been imagining for the last 15 years…!

The Inner Circle

I was greeted by both Ken Ellis and Ken Delve and following a tour of the building, meeting the likes of Robert J Rudhall and Duncan Cubitt (and trying not to look like an awestruck fanboy) the interview began. It seemed to go well and Ken Ellis remembered me from my commentating exploits six years previously. It was a very informal affair and Ken Delve – who was Publishing Director at the time – explained that his ethos was to employ enthusiasts and teach them to write. “It’s easier than teaching a writer to be enthusiastic about aeroplanes” he said with a wry smile.

To cut a long story short I didn’t get the job. It turned out that the two Kens had actually wanted to sound me out with a view to me joining the team for an entirely different project. “We have another plan bubbling away” said Ken E when he called me the following week, “and we think you might be the perfect person for the job.”

And so it was that I found myself reporting to the office on Monday July 24, 2000 as the Launch Editor for a new magazine called Air Action. My introduction to the world of aviation publishing could perhaps be classed as ‘in at the deep end’ as Air France Concorde Flight 4590 crashed in Paris on my second day. As the new boy I was left to my own devices and spent a few days absorbing my surroundings, exploring the immense archive of photographs and slides and generally trying not to get in the way of the ‘grownups’. I was just happy to be in those hallowed offices and surrounded by the names I had grown up admiring. I had been admitted into the ‘inner circle’ – now I needed to prove to everybody (including myself) that I was worthy of my place.

Air Action Issue 1 – the start of Steve’s journalistic legacy.

What quickly became apparent to me was that ‘Key Towers’ really was that magical home to talented individuals and priceless archives or books and photographs. It mattered not a jot that it was on an industrial estate; I was now working with some of my boyhood heroes and surrounded by decades of aviation heritage. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to make my own mark on that history.

Air Action

The idea behind Air Action was very simple; it was to be fun, educational and inspirational. And at 25 I was seen as “the youthful face of aviation;” the first of a new generation of aviation authors and editors.

Our remit was to encourage a new generation of enthusiasts. We would run articles about airshows, flight sim games, model kits, careers in aviation and anything we thought of interest. Our target readership was aged ten to 18 and it was our hope that parents and grandparents would buy the magazine to give to their children and grandchildren.

Our first issue hit the shelves in late September 2000 and at the Christmas Party the Chairman explained that I was probably the youngest ever magazine Launch Editor in Britain. It was a very proud moment.

However, behind the scenes things were not going well. The magazine certainly found its niche, had good reviews and was selling well. However, in an attempt to make it appeal to our target audience we had opted to give Air Action a ‘pocket money’ price tag. In order to achieve this we had been promised financial support from the aviation industry. The airlines wanted to recruit cadets, the air force was in need of a new intake and engineering companies needed apprentices.

As it transpired, they all had these needs but were unable or unwilling to put their hands in their pockets to support the venture. As such, we ran half a dozen issues of the magazine at a loss before deciding to ‘park’ the idea.

Of course it was a disappointment, but I guess I must have made the right impression as I was immediately moved across to another new magazine that was being launched. Today’s Pilot was a private flying magazine to be edited by the incredibly experienced aviator Dave Unwin and he needed an assistant editor.

After editing Air Action, Steve transferred across to the team producing Today’s Pilot magazine.

The Pre Digital World

I had always been interested in light aircraft and working at ‘TP’ allowed me to travel the country – sometimes the world – in pursuit of stories. Dave was the pilot on the team; he’d flown more than a hundred types and had gazillions of flying hours. I knew my limitations; there was no way I could write with anything approaching the detail and authority that he penned his flight tests. So I carved my own niche; focusing on the News pages and the ‘people’ articles.

The ‘people’ articles were varied. One day I might be interviewing the owner of a Cessna 182 for our ‘Owning and Operating’ series, the next I might be visiting an airfield to speak to local pilots for our ‘Going Places’ features and then I might find myself speaking to somebody with a great story to tell as part of our ‘People & Their Planes’ section.

Writing the News was important to me as it was my way of learning more about the industry. I’d take great pride in finding the latest scoops and soon made friends with the PR people at aircraft manufacturers around the globe.

Remember, however, that this was early 2001. Everybody used e-mail by now but social media as we know it now was unheard of. If you wanted to keep in touch with friends you called them for a chat and if you wanted to find old acquaintances you looked on the ‘Friends Reunited’ website. Google was only four years old and we all had our favourite search engines; mine being ‘Ask Jeeves.’

Some of the larger aircraft manufacturers had clunky websites but even those were only really useful for listing contact details and product specifications.

So, if I wanted to illustrate a news feature about the new ‘Bloggs Aeronautics Type 6’ aircraft I had to either call or e-mail Bloggs Aeronautics and ask for their help. Back in 2001, digital photography was still in its infancy and the majority of the images I received for my news pages were either 6x4 prints or 35mm transparency slides. News wasn’t instant, but we needed to plan ahead to ensure that we had all the imagery ahead of our press day – if you needed a 35mm slide posting from an American manufacturer you needed to allow at least a week.

As the years went by digital imagery became more commonplace but a combination of poor (by today’s standards) cameras, low speed internet connections and general user error a great proportion of the jpegs we received were so small they were effectively unusable. I can still remember the audible gasps when you told the PR man you needed a jpeg that was a minimum of 300dpi and at least 250kb!

In those early years it wasn’t just photography that hadn’t quite made it into the digital era. Our flatplans (effectively a page-by-page diagram showing which articles run on which pages within the magazine) consisted of an A3 piece of paper pinned to the notice board in the office. When an article was written we would strike through the box in one direction and when it had been designed we would strike in the opposite direction to make a ‘cross’.

The design process was also decidedly ‘non digital’ as we would hand deliver an envelope to the designer containing the slides or photos we wanted to use along with a sheet listing the relevant page numbers and any specific instructions. Once he/she had worked their magic they would print off of the designed pages and bring them back upstairs to the editorial team. We would then annotate with a red pen where any corrections or changes were needed.

When all of the pages were completed the magazine was sent off to the printer.  The first four editions of Air Action were printed using the ‘Chromalin’ method.  This entailed the designer sending the designed documents AND the original photographs/slides to the printer once all the pages had been finalised. The following day the courier would deliver four layers of clear photosensitive plastic sheet. Each sheet was exposed to one of the colour separation negatives, and, when aligned in layers and laminated together in proper register, gave an indication of the finalised pages. And thus a magazine was born.

One of Steve’s most memorable assignments came in 2003 when he got the chance to go wing-walking. He also parachuted, rode in hot air balloons, flew aerobatics and got to travel as far afield as the USA and Russia while working on private flying magazines.

As time went by, the technology changed to enable digital printing. Now the designed pages were sent to the printer as PDFs on a Compact Disc along with the scanned photographs. It made life so much simpler, infinitely cheaper and you no longer lived in fear that the Chromalins would slip during printing and pages would be produced ‘out of register.’

Aviation Publishing Today

So what has changed in the last twenty years?

Well, on a personal level I have far less hair and a much larger circumference!  I left ‘FlyPast Towers’ after six years to join Pilot magazine and to launch Go Flying newpaper. I then took a break from magazine industry and worked for a number of aviation companies – including Pooleys and Air Atlantique – before I stumbled back into the publishing world.

A move to Kelsey Publishing in 2010 saw Steve re-launch Jets Monthly magazine.

Kelsey Publishing contacted me after acquiring Aeroplane Monthly magazine from IPC in 2010 and asked if I would be interested in relaunching Jets Monthly magazine. IPC had produced Jets a number of years previously and the rights to the name came as part of the package with Aeroplane Monthly.

In the pits at the Reno Races with friend and Canadian photographer Doug Fisher.

In a strange twist of fate, Jets Monthly (& Aeroplane) was sold to Key Publishing in 2014 and I found myself back at ‘FlyPast Towers’ – which just goes to prove why you should always leave a job on good terms if at all possible. It was nice ‘coming home.’

I spent a short time at the helm at Aeroplane Monthly and acted as Contributing Editor at Air International. I also produced a number of ‘bookazines’ (a cross between a book and a magazine) on a freelance basis for Key before I joined the team at Warners Group Publishing in 2019.

Sharing the stage with Kermit Weeks during the RAF 100 celebrations at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in 2018.

My first bookazine for Warners is on sale now. Aircraft of the RAF focuses on the nearly 600 types the Royal Air Force has operated since 1918.

So much has changed in the industry over the last two decades, so how do we produce a magazine/bookazine in 2020? Well, the major change is that we now produce things remotely.

When I started in the industry we were all office based. My sub-editor was located five offices down the corridor, my designer was downstairs, the advertising sales team were in the office next to him and the photo archive was located next to the office kitchen.

Today, I work from my office at home. The dogs are normally curled up under my desk and I have music streaming from either my laptop or my smart speaker. My sub editor is in Bristol, my regular designers work from home wherever they might be and only the advertising staff are located in the office in Lincolnshire. The archive is digital and the office kitchen is a thing of the past.

With the exception of my library of research books the entire process of producing a magazine is now done digitally. I have a team of trusted freelance authors who I know I can call upon to provide me with articles on most subjects. When I’m commissioned to produce a publication, I instantly know which of my team will be able to write suitable articles within the theme. I’ll start by e-mailing the guys and girls to either suggest a feature they might like to research or to ask for their suggestions.

Once I’ve collated the available material, I’ll commission each writer to produce what is needed; briefing them as to the word count needed and the deadline that I need them to work towards.

Deadlines are the one thing that trip up the majority of authors. It used to cause me a problem when I started writing twenty years ago – not because I was bad at time management but because I’m a perfectionist. I would constantly go over an article time and time again, tweaking it and rewriting sections. However, one day Ken Delve explained it to me in a way I’ve never forgotten. “We all have the capability to produce a perfect five page article” he said; “the problem is that five page article would sit alongside 95 empty pages in the magazine. The art of writing is to know when an article is ‘good enough’. You have to remember that an entire magazine of ‘good enough’ articles is better than an empty magazine – and WHSmiths won’t wait for anybody!”

I’ve used that analogy myself to many a fledgling author over the years and it stands as true today as it did then.

Nowadays the flatplan is digital. The scrappy photocopied A3 sheet pinned to the wall is long gone and now an online system tracks the process of articles through the production sequence – from commissioned, to written, edited, sub-edited, designed, proofread and ‘ready to print’.

The team will send their features to me (usually well before the deadline if they want to stay in my good books!) along with any images they want to include. I’ve amassed a sizeable digital archive over the years and still collect prints and slides that are scanned to add to the photo library. However, my team of experts will often have images of their own that they offer for publication and the majority of the time these will be delivered by either e-mail or a file transfer website such as DropBox or WeTransfer.

Today it is easy to take, send and publish photographs. The majority of us have a camera on our mobile phone that is many times more powerful than the first digital SLR I used back in 2004. I took the liberty of looking up some statistics (which must be true because they were on the internet!) and can tell you that more than a trillion photographs were taken last year; nearly 90% of which were shot on a smartphone rather than a traditional digital camera. It also claimed that more photographs were taken in the last two minutes than in the entire 1800s and nearly 20% of all photographs ever taken were shot in the last twelve months!

Nowadays, a photograph taken on a smartphone can be used in a magazine and there have been press conferences I’ve attended armed with nothing more than my phone. It acts as a voice recorder, camera, diary and communication method. It really is the one tool I can’t work without.

Today, getting quality images is no longer forefront in the aviation journalist’s worries. So let’s look at the writing…

I’ll normally research and write a significant portion of each bookazine myself. However, when a feature arrives from one of my team of writers my job shifts from author to editor. The editor’s job is not just to check the article’s grammar but also to check the facts. Equally important is to check the style matches that of other features in the same publication – there’s nothing worse than a reader jumping from article to article with two jarring styles.

As I said, I’m lucky to have a team of regular writers who I trust to get the facts correct – but with my name on the editorial page it means the buck stops with me. Let’s just say you become naturally sceptical in this job!

After I’ve edited the article for style, content and (if necessary) length I’ll then finalise the images that I want to include as illustrations and provide a list of captions. The package then gets e-mailed to Bristol where Charlotte works her sub-editing magic on the words. Although her aviation knowledge is growing at a phenomenal rate it is her grasp of the English language that makes her such a vital part of the process. When she did her GCSE English exam she was one of the Top 5 students in the entire country – so there’s not much she doesn’t know about a split infinity, irregular verb or past participle.

In a way, Charlotte’s relative lack of aviation knowledge is a boon because she often questions the relevance of a comment or ask for further explanation. When you’ve researched a subject so thoroughly it is very easy to ‘assume’ the reader knows as much as you do. Therefore, in my opinion, a good sub-editor should check that the article actually makes sense and the author’s ‘assumed knowledge’ is valid.

Once she’s happy with the wording she will e-mail the feature back to me – with changes marked as ‘tracked changes.’ I will then go through and accept (or very occasionally reject) the suggested alterations before sending the package of words and images to the designer via Dropbox.

He then does his ‘design stuff’ and sends me a finished article both as a PDF and as an Adobe InDesign document. Although I proof all of the articles myself, I’m lucky to have a freelance proofer who also goes through each document with a fine tooth comb. Rich is great - because not only is he a trained proof-reader he also a fellow aviation geek. He provides a third check of the grammar and style but also checks the technical aspects of the feature – it’s not unknown for him to query the specific model of aircraft being discussed (“are you sure this is a Mk II and not a Mk IV?”) or clarify a date that is mentioned.

I still prefer to do my proofreading from a piece of paper with a red pen – it’s very ‘old school’ but I find it easier and particularly satisfying. It’s also a welcome break from staring at a computer screen.

With my corrections combined with Rich’s I can then use Adobe InDesign to correct any typos that have slipped through the net thus far. I’m a perfectionist and I also like my articles to look neat and tidy so frequently spend large amounts of time ‘tweaking’ the wording to avoid orphans and widows. Orphans are single words that are left alone on a line at the end of a paragraph whereas a widow is when the last sentence of a paragraph roles over onto the next column or (worse still) page.

When I’m happy that the page is ‘good enough’, I’ll send the InDesign document back to the designer who prepares it for the printer. The final editorial job for me is to check the online flatplan system to ensure that the pages have been uploaded in the correct order, that the text flows from each page to the next without any missing words and the printer hasn’t flagged up any concerns about the quality of any of the images we have provided.

From that point forward things are out of my hands and I nervously and excitedly wait for the first edition to appear from the printer. After two decades and hundreds of press days I still get a sense of excitement when I open up the magazine for the first time. Invariably, there’s a typo somewhere and it’s usually on the first page you turn to!  We’re human and we all make mistakes, sometimes technology helps and sometimes it hinders. As a case in point; I once wrote a news article about the Boeing C-17. It was sub-edited, designed and then proofread by two extra people. That was five pairs of eyes that failed to spot that Spellcheck had changed one letter… I’m sure the nice folk at Boeing were ecstatic to read my article about their Boring C-17!

In 2019, Steve received the Freedom of the City of London and was made a liveryman of the Honourable Company of Air Pilots.

Social Media

So what has really changed in this industry over the last twenty years? We’ve certainly become more digital and more remote. That has its advantages and disadvantages. The system is slicker and quicker but it’s more impersonal. I always try to visit the office as often as I’m able and speak to my team by phone rather than e-mail whenever possible. I’m a firm believer in face to face meetings but also a great exponent of the power of social media.

Unlike those firms I dealt with two decades ago, today’s businesses (large and small) appreciate the importance of an online presence. In addition to monitoring the media sections on websites – which often with high resolution images and up-to-date news releases – it is essential for the modern journalist to maintain a listening watch on a myriad of social media platforms. Firms often use the immediacy of Twitter and Facebook to release their news but, perhaps more importantly to the writer/researcher, a plethora of enthusiasts have their finger on the pulse. News, rumours and opinion expressed on social media or in chat rooms and forums needs to be treated with some caution, but due diligence and an acquired knowledge of who’s trustworthy and reliable enables the aviation journalist to keep abreast with happenings across the globe.

Today it is far easier to break into this industry. The ‘closed shop’ of magazine contributors has long gone, digital cameras make it easier to take publishing quality images and the ability to self-publish articles and photographs on websites, in chatrooms and via social media mean we can all be ‘journalists.’

Of course, this means we – as readers – have to look for quality reporting and reliable sources. Don’t believe everything you read online, don’t take things at face value and ask yourself whether the author has an agenda.

I look around at some of the young writing talent emerging within our ‘industry’ with a gratifying feeling. What was once a trade predominantly occupied by ‘old boys’ is now encouraging a new generation of youthful authors, who bring with them passion, enthusiasm and a myriad of new ideas. They span the gulf from salaried members of staff at paper magazines to freelance reporters or enthusiastic ‘amateurs’ producing quality online content from their home offices or bedrooms.

I often wonder what 25 year old me would say if he could see me now; sitting at my desk surrounded by books. Would he believe that we produce the magazine entirely digitally? Would he believe that I’ve just driven home from a meeting in my car – with inbuilt sat nav and my entire music collection available at the touch of a button via my iPod? Would he believe that I can ask the speaker in the corner of my office questions and it answers? Would he believe that I’m about to video call a friend in the USA?

These days I frequently look back at those days when I bought magazines as a teenager and dreamed of a world that I wanted to be part of. I was phenomenally lucky to be given my break by Ken Delve; who taught this enthusiast how to write. He gave me the metaphorical foot up onto the ladder that enabled me to break into an industry that I still don’t feel I deserve to be part of. Sometimes I look around me at the company I keep – be it interviewing a veteran in the RAF Club, having dinner at the Honourable Company of Air Pilots or standing in the pilot’s enclosure at an airshow – and have to pinch myself. This is a job that opens doors you didn’t know existed.

You’re never going to make a fortune in this industry – I often tell people that I don’t have a job – I have a hobby that pays me a bit of money! However, what we do is great fun and a great privilege.

These days I’m lucky to work with a team of people who I can also count as friends. It’s fair to say I’ve worked with some ‘difficult’ writers and photographers over the years – but I only worked with them once! As I just said, we don’t do this job to become millionaires, we do it because it’s fun. My business ethos tends to favour working with people I like and can rely on. If we could happily sit and enjoy a beer together, then we’ll probably work well together. Life’s too short to surround yourself with ‘difficult’ people.

In recent times Steve has specialised in producing one-shot ‘bookazines’ – this is a selection of the titles he has edited over the year.

Tips for Success

So what tips can I offer somebody wanting to follow a career in aviation journalism – or even or anybody wanting to submit a feature or photograph to a magazine? Well, based on years of experience, and based on real-life situations I’ve found myself in, here is a list of a few ‘dos and don’ts’:

DO

DO Ask the editor what he Wants and Needs.

If you’re going to an event or airshow tell the editor BEFORE you go and ask if they would like any coverage. Alternatively, tell the editor about your areas of interest or speciality (e.g. Soviet civilian aircraft from the interwar years) and ask if they plan to run articles on that subject.

DO Read the Style Sheet.

Each publisher and/or magazine will have their own style. It might be the way numbers are written (alpha or numeric), the number of spaces required after a full stop or the use of abbreviations. Asking for a copy of the style sheet (and sticking to it) shows you are both professional and diligent.

DO Stick to the Word Count.

When an editor commissions you to write an article, they will ask for a certain number of words. This is because they have allocated a certain number of pages in the magazine to that feature. If you are asked to write 1,800 words do not send 3,000 or 1,000. There’s leeway, of course. Nobody will realistically expect you to provide ‘exactly’ 1,800 and I’m usually happy to receive something in the region of 250-300 words either way. By the time it’s been edited I can usually crop out words or add a few paragraphs if required.

If you think an article needs more or less words my tip is to speak to the editor as early as possible. If you can justify why you think it needs to grow, he can possibly move things around on the flatplan to allow an extra page or two. Delivering too few words can be worse than delivering too many, especially closer to press day when the editor suddenly finds himself having to fill that empty space at short notice.

DO Provide Images (but don’t be offended if we don’t use them all).

During the course of your research you may well come across images that you think illustrate your feature perfectly. The editor will know how many images he requires for your article, so once again ASK the question. It might be that he intends to illustrate the feature from images within the publisher’s archive – but even then, you might have a different (or better) photograph that just has to be included.

Please don’t be offended if the editor does not use all of the images you send and/or replaces some of your photographs with his own or examples from the archive. The publication’s budget is fixed and this means the amount of photographs we can buy is often limited. So if we have a similar photograph (or maybe the same photograph) in our own archives please don’t get upset if we use that shot instead.

Which brings me neatly to copyright. Please ensure that any photographs you use are copyright free or you have permission of the copyright holder. In the past I’ve had people send me photographs taken by well-known professional air-to-air photographers and expect to be paid for them personally. I’ve also received images that are available to download free of charge from the USAF website (yet the sender expected to be paid for them). If a photograph is in your ‘collection’ it may well be in other people’s collection – so please don’t be upset if we use the image from our collection.

DO Ask for Help!

When I was a magazine reader I used to look upon the editors, authors and photographers as some form of higher beings! I’m sad to report that this is not the case… we are normal human beings and (speaking personally) we are approachable and happy to help. If you have a question, a request or a suggestion about the article you’re writing either send us an e-mail or pick up the phone. We’ll give you the best advice we can.

The same applies if you’re unable to meet a deadline. We’d rather know early than late; that way we can make alternative plans to fill those pages. We know that sometimes life gets in the way, sometimes research takes longer than expected, occasionally you get let down by people you had hoped to interview and – above all else – you are not doing this as a fulltime occupation.

DO Proofread Before you Click Send.

It might sound like a simple request; but you’d be surprised at the amount of articles we receive that are full of typos and unfinished sentences. Run your article through spellcheck when you’ve finished writing it and I’d strongly advise that when you think you’ve finished it you close the document and go do something else. Later (preferably the next day) go back and read it with fresh eyes. If you’re still happy with it then send it over.

DO Build a ‘Relationship’ with the Editor.

I can’t speak for other editors (and this might just be the way I work) but please try to build a good working relationship with the editor. The old saying that ‘people buy people’ remains perfectly true and I tend to work with the authors and photographers who I get on well with. It was the same when I worked in the IT industry two decades ago; the best salespeople were the ones who made you laugh, remembered your family’s names and asked if you’d had a nice weekend. Effectively you’re ‘selling’ your writing services to an editor, so make sure you’re the person he wants to buy from.

DON’T

Again, these lists of DON’TS come from bitter experience, hopefully they will help you learn from others’ mistakes!

DON’T Send in Hundreds of Images.

The editor will not have time to sift through your entire SD card full of images. If you’re sending in an airshow review send a maximum of six images (unless specifically asked otherwise) of the most relevant aircraft. If there was one particularly newsworthy aircraft at the show it might help to send in a choice of two different views of it – but PLEASE don’t just dump your memory card into the editor’s inbox!

DON’T Send the Same Article to Various Magazines.

It might sound obvious (but evidently it isn’t as it has happened on more than one occasion) – please don’t send the same article to multiple magazines. If the editor has no queries about the article you might not realise he is going to use it until it appears on the shelf. If the same feature appears in another magazine the same month it’s fairly certain that you won’t be used again. This also applies to writing an article about the same subject – even if the words are different, editors will not want to run a feature if something similar appears in a rival magazine at the same time.

These days magazines are competing with social media for news, photos and features. If you have a great photograph that you would like to be paid for my tip is to not post it for free on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or on an internet chat room until it has appeared in print.

DON’T Plagiarise!

Again, it might sound obvious but when you are writing about a subject please do not copy somebody else’s work. This applies to websites as well as books – I once received a feature that contained a direct ‘cut and paste’ from Wikipedia (complete with the hyperlinks!). We all use websites to research aircraft, but please re-write the information in your own words. When the editor is fact checking your article he’s sure to notice if your phrases match those used on the leading websites or in the definitive reference books.

DON’T Change the Style When Proofing.

If we have had to make significant changes to the article you have provided we might send it back to you to proofread. This will tend to be with the more inexperienced authors or where we have had to edit out paragraphs to meet a word count. To ensure that we have not inadvertently changed the meaning of your article the editor might send it back to you for approval. In this case we are looking for you to check the facts, not to rewrite the style. The article will have been edited and sub-edited according to the magazine’s style sheet – so please do not rephrase things. However, we really welcome any comments about the facts or gist that may have been inadvertently been changed during the editing process. The chances are you probably know more about that subject than the editor – so please don’t be afraid to point out any ‘editorial induced errors’.

DON’T Haggle.

As I touched on earlier – each magazine will have a budget that it must adhere to. As such, the fee an editor can pay for an article or photograph is, sadly, not open to negotiation.

We appreciate that you may have incurred costs in preparing the article; likewise, you may have rented a camera-ship to take an air-to-air photograph. However, the money available in the editorial ‘kitty’ is limited. We do our best to accommodate everybody’s needs but we also need to fill the magazine. In the past I’ve dealt with photographers who have demanded twice the going rate for their images. The result is very simple – we just use half the number of photographs.

Remember the analogy of having ‘one perfect article and 95 empty pages’? The same applies here – the magazine’s budget needs to be split across all of the pages. If we ‘blow the budget’ on one incredible feature the remaining features will be pretty sparse.

Again, the trick is to talk to the editor ahead of time. Find out whether an article will be of interest and what the budget is ‘before’ you rent that camera-ship or travel to Barbados to interview that veteran. And if you’ve built up a strong relationship with the editor they are more likely to be flexible when you have incurred extra expenses. If you have a track record of delivering quality features, not missing a deadline and ‘making the editor’s life easy’ the more chance you’ll have of squeezing a few extra quid out of the coffers!

Conclusion

Every article needs a conclusion – so what is mine? Well, twenty years ago I set out on a career that led me around the globe and introduced me to fascinating people. Many of those people became lifelong contacts and a few have become friends. The people I admired as boyhood heroes are now genuine friends.  I have been truly blessed.

Ken Delve took a risk on this young author in the summer of the year 2000 – I feel it is my obligation to do all I can to help recruit, mentor and encourage the next generation of aviation authors. When I started writing, at the age of 25, I was seen as the ‘youthful face’ of aviation. It really pleases me to see today’s proliferation of young writers, photographers and editors emerging on the scene and I will continue to do all I can to assist and encourage them.

Blue Skies

Steve

Steve Bridgewater is an aviation author and editor who has also worked as Marketing Manager at Pooleys Flight Equipment and Commercial Operation Director at the Air Atlantique Classic Flight. He’s also a Liveryman of the Honourable Company of Air Pilots and an award winning photographer.

Steve’s current bookazine Aircraft of the RAF is available to buy in both print and download formats at https://www.militaria-history.co.uk/store/reader-offers/the-armourer/aircraft-of-the-raf-gr-first-edition-issue-1/?utm_source=website&utm_medium=banner&utm_campaign=ARAF


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