An Appreciation: Former Aviation Week Editor-in-Chief David M. North
But for a holiday party, David M. North’s long and splendid association with Aviation Week might never have been. In 1976, recently furloughed as a Boeing 707 flight engineer for Pan American World Airways, he paid a cold call to Aviation Week’s offices at New York’s Rockefeller Center to drop off a resume. But the reception desk was vacant, as staffers had left for the company’s annual holiday bash.
North wandered the empty hallways until he came upon someone still working, who happened to be the magazine’s managing editor, Bill Gregory. The two struck up a conversation, and the rest was history. The untested writer spent the next 28 years at Aviation Week & Space Technology, filing pilot reports on more than 120 aircraft and rising to editor-in-chief in 1995.
North, who retired in 2004, died Nov. 24 in St. Michaels, Maryland, where he lived. He was 85.
A 1957 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy—he recalled future Sen. John McCain, who was a year behind him, as a “hellraiser”—North became a Navy pilot. He racked up more than 500 carrier landings and flew more than 100 combat missions in Douglas A-4 Skyhawks during the Vietnam War before joining Pan Am. He also spent three years as an assistant professor of naval science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he earned a master’s degree in communications.
At Aviation Week, North was known for his prolific pilot reports. His landmark assessments included in-depth evaluations of the Rockwell B-1B bomber, Northrop B-2 stealth bomber, Boeing F/A-18 fighter/attack aircraft, Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft and a wide variety of civil and business aircraft. In 1990, he became the first Western journalist to fly the Russian Sukhoi Su-27 and Mikoyan MiG-29 fighters.
North remained a two-finger typist throughout his writing career, always erring on the side of giving readers more steak than sizzle. They loved his just-the-facts approach and depth of knowledge about all things aviation. He seemed to know everyone in the field, and of those he respected and liked, his assessment was usually short and direct: “A good guy.”
As editor-in-chief, North was unflappable. Reporters, editors and artists knew that if he came to them on a deadline and began with “a challenge,” he was about to dump some problem in their lap that he expected them to solve—cheerfully. In his office, he had a large picture of himself at the helm of a sailboat emblazoned with the words, “What, me worry?” And he implicitly trusted those on staff who he thought were straight-shooters and better at aspects of the craft of journalism or knew more about a particular subject than he.
Skilled at maneuvering the corridors of corporate bureaucracy, always with an eye to protecting his people and the publication, he frequently described his job of top editor as being all about “people and budgets” and relatively little about hands-on editing. When asked how he managed to pull off some feat of dealing with those above him in the hierarchical labyrinth, he answered affably but enigmatically: “Rat-like cunning.”
More than a few of his employees described him as the best boss they ever had. “My job interview with him was by phone,” recalls Jim Asker, who joined Aviation Week as a space reporter and retired in 2017 as executive editor. “He said, ‘Jim, you need to negotiate for the biggest salary you can get, because it’s not going to go up much once you’re here.’ I knew his superiors would have shot him if they knew he was advising a recruit to play hardball, but that’s the kind of guy Dave was.”
North loved all the jobs he had at Aviation Week but was happiest when they involved flying. He began as a reporter covering airlines, did a stint as business flying editor and put in some time as a defense reporter before becoming Washington bureau chief, managing editor and editor-in-chief. That’s not to say he was never frustrated. Aviation Week was so full of experienced and confident aerospace journalists, engineers and pilots that North would sometimes complain, “I feel like I’m commanding a squadron full of colonels.”
Under his leadership, Aviation Week led coverage of the dramatic post-Cold War consolidation of the aerospace industry, the rise of Airbus, the debut of regional jets, Boeing’s acquisition of McDonnell Douglas, the 9/11 attacks, a tragic space shuttle accident and the second Gulf War. And during his tenure, Aviation Week made its first step into the digital age by posting articles online.
David Morgan North was born on the last day of 1934 in Oswego, New York, and spent most of his childhood in Lowell, Massachusetts. A father of three children, one deceased, he is survived by his wife of more than 50 years, Vicky, a daughter, son, two daughters-in-law, a son-in-law and six grandchildren.