In the first days after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings faced the members of the presidential investigating commission and scolded them for their lack of progress. "You need some gumshoes," he told the commissioners. "Aviation Week will run rings around you."

Hollings wasn't the only one who thought so. Aviation Week & Space Technology, the chronicle of the aerospace industry, has been essential reading for many in the wake of the shuttle disaster, frequently leading the press pack in news and analysis of the accident and management that may have led to it. "Each Monday morning you've been able to find out a quantum leap more than you knew Sunday night," says Pat Towell, who writes on defense matters for Congressional Quarterly.

So critical and extensive has the coverage been, and such a departure from Aviation Week's generally pro-NASA bent, that some observers are using it as a benchmark for the space program's fall from grace. It's certainly not the first time the magazine's coverage has made news.

Celebrated for its superior technical reporting, Aviation Week has produced a steady stream of spectacular leaks and scoops -- and enough duds to have earned the nickname "Aviation Leak and Space Mythology" from its critics. It is read avidly even by those who are skeptical of what they see as its cheerleading for high-tech hardware.

Readers like to say that if Aviation Week didn't exist it would have to be invented. Fat and glossy, it is the bulletin board for the military industrial community, for aerospace executives, Pentagon technocrats, consultants, politicians and their aides, as well as a wider audience of journalists and defense policy analysts.

"Aviation Week is to airplane and space people what Rolling Stone is to rock musicians," says Joseph P. Allen, an astronaut, recently retired, who flew on shuttle missions 5 and 51A.

"It's like reading Pravda," says Gregg Easterbrook, an Atlantic Monthly writer and frequent critic of Pentagon procurement practices. "You read it to find out what they're thinking."

Aviation Week's editors consider theirs a news magazine first, trade magazine second. "We've never looked at ourselves as a mouthpiece for the industry," says Washington bureau chief Robert R. Ropelewski.

"I try to keep my distance from all the contracting huckters," says Craig Covault, the magazine's space flight editor.

Each week the magazine is stuffed with flight test results, product updates, Pentagon shopping lists, federal budget news and aviation accident reports, all valued for their technical sophistication and reliability. Its coverage of civil aviation is regarded as the best in the business. The magazine also runs pages of color photos. "We can show the beauty of space flight," says Covault, "sort of like Arizona Highways."

If you haven't heard of Aviation Week, don't worry, you probably can't get on the mailing list anyway. McGraw-Hill claims it controls subscribership (now at about 150,000 plus a pass-along audience estimated at 450,000) to tantalize advertisers with a select and high-powered audience. Subscribers, the masthead warns, are limited to "executive management, engineering and scientific levels in industry, airlines, corporate aviation, government and military."

"We won't send it to a grease monkey who might want to read it but isn't a decision maker," Managing Editor Herbert J. Coleman says matter-of-factly.

The combination of abstruse technical reporting tion has even given the magazine a certain cachet. "Lately I've noticed people carrying it around strapped to the outside of their briefcases," says the staff member of a congressional committee.

The advertisements, at least half the book most weeks, appear to be calibrated to seduce desk jockeys and test pilots alike with the glamor of high-tech aviation.

"They Just Raised the Stakes Again," reads an ad for Grumman. "We Need a Stronger Hand."

"First Up" reads the big black letters on an ad that pictures a smoking McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet crouched on the runway, ready to soar off into the sunset.

Aviation Week is not the only publication devoted to aerospace and defense matters, but it is the oldest and considered the pace setter. "It's our turf," says Editor in Chief Don Fink.

Founded in 1921 as Aviation, the magazine gradually absorbed five other aviation magazines, and now has nine bureaus around the United States and in Europe. "They've got one guy whose only responsibility is the Cape, that's how fine a head they can put on it," says one journalist. At Cape Canaveral, after the Challenger explosion, Aviation Week's reporters were invaluable technical sources for neophytes from the daily press.

The Washington bureau in Rosslyn looks like the satellite branch of the Air and Space museum, festooned with photographs and paintings of planes and rockets.

Coleman wears a B17 tiepin, a souvenir of his World War II days. His office is filled with flight memorabilia including a "Machbusters" certificate from Northrop to commemorate his test flight of an F5 several years ago.

Space technology editor Covault came to the magazine 14 years ago hoping to be the first journalist in space and has spent dozens of training hours on the shuttle flight simulator at Cape Canaveral. He calls himself a "space cadet," and puts callers on hold by saying "Standby." His instructor at the Cape was Judith Resnik. The staff, several of them pilots, consider test flights in new planes part of the job.

Aviation Week is legendary for its sources in military intelligence and the aerospace industry. Over the years the magazine has regularly alerted the world to numerous top-secret Soviet and American military test flights and technology advances.

In 1947, for example, Aviation Week broke the story of Chuck Yeager's supersonic flight, months before the Air Force would acknowledge that it had taken place.

In 1980, the magazine was the first of three publications including The Washington Post to print details about the Carter administration's then-classified plans for the Stealth bomber. The stories led to speculation that then Secretary of Defense Harold Brown had leaked the information himself to help defend the president against criticism that he had allowed the nation's defenses to deteriorate.

And in April 1984, the magazine was the first to print details of the Pentagon's top-secret shuttle mission. The Pentagon screamed, but Coleman says the story came from a published paper "anyone could have found if they'd known where to look."

Because of the magazine's much-vaunted sources, the image of the Aviation Week correspondent snoozing in his chair as leaks flutter in over the transom has a certain currency.

"It's actually about half and half," says a former Aviation Week writer, who relates the magazine's wealth of military sources to its large and uncritical appetite for military intelligence. "There are plenty of cases where the military knows they'll get it reported solely from the military point of view, so they go to Aviation Week for a kind of advertisement."

The technical sophistication of the Aviation Week staff is a lure for potential leakers as well. "The technical community knows that Aviation Week reporters will understand and write the nuances of what they have to say," says CQ's Towell. "They are highly respected and as a result they have sources up and down the kazoo."

Robert B. Hotz, the magazine's former editor in chief, is a member of the president's commission on the shuttle accident, but Aviation Week editors say Hotz was no special help to them and that their scoops came from long-cultivated sources in the middle and lower echelons of NASA management. They also point out that the magazine led the commission in the first weeks after the accident.

The magazine can be highly useful to bureaucrats pushing their own programs. Robert Farquhar, a project flight director for Goddard Space Flight Center's International Cometary Explorer program, says he was happy to tell Aviation Week, because "If I go to NASA, they might put me on the back burner," he says. "In Aviation Week, everyone sees it and there's a lot of interest."

The magazine's coverage of the Challenger aftermath has received excellent marks, but some colleagues say the staff's affection for the shuttle project meant that Aviation Week was no more likely than the rest of the sleeping shuttle press corps to have uncovered Challenger's problems before the launch.

In fact, Aviation Week printed more than most publications about shuttle flaws over the years, but its editors say they, too, were lulled by the shuttle program's record of success. "We reported on some of the problems," says Coleman, "but at the time they didn't strike us as catastrophic."

So routine had the shuttle launchings become, Coleman says, that he didn't bother to watch the Challenger launch on cable TV. He heard about the explosion from a wire service reporter as he was walking to lunch.

There are readers -- journalists and defense analysts, even Pentagon officials -- who say the magazine's coverage too often reflects the political needs of its advertisers.

"Generally, they're pretty hawkish in their pronouncements of the Soviet threat and the need for upgrading U.S. weapons," says Paul Stares, a research associate at the Brookings Institution. "That's precisely the line that appeals to a lot of aerospace companies."

Not so, says editor in chief Don Fink. "We do have our critics who say we're pro-DOD and not likely to show cost overruns. But if you look at our stories, you'll see that's not the case." Others say the magazine has been used by sources who leak intelligence of debatable veracity and use the resulting stories to drum up political support for projects of dubious merit.

In 1958, for example, Aviation Week told the world that the Soviet Union was test-flying the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft, a "mammoth experimental bomber," that had been seen flying in the Moscow area for at least two months. (Newsweek had a similar story two years earlier.)

The plane never materialized, but Aviation Week's account is considered to have helped sustain the U.S. Air Force's $1 billion postwar effort to build its own nuclear-powered plane.

"A sickening shock," read the Aviation Week editorial announcing Moscow's breakthrough. "Once again, the Soviets have beaten us needlessly to a significant technical punch." The editorial blamed the "technical timidity" of scientists and "penny pinching" politicians.

That Air Force's A-plane project, whose dismal history was outlined in Science 82 magazine, was shelved in 1961 by President Kennedy.

"I'm sure they were convinced at the time," says a longtime Pentagon reporter of the Aviation Week story. "But it makes you wonder who convinced them."

"They're big on right-wing evidence of the marching red threat. There are lots of stories about violations of the arms control treaties that are flat-out wrong, or at the very least, unbalanced," says a senior congressional aide, referring to Aviation Week reports that the Algerians had signed an agreement to turn over a French colonial military base to the Soviets. Also yet to be proven are the magazine's reports that the Soviets were about to be granted special access in Mauritius.

The editors say occasional misfires are the price it pays for being on the leading edge. The obsession with Soviet technological advancements is inevitable. "This magazine always has a preoccupation with anything Russian," says Coleman. "Because they're there and because they're secret. Americans abominate secrets."

Even some fans, however, say Aviation Week has been known to go off the deep end, and they almost uniformly cite the magazine's coverage, some say flogging, of reports that the Soviet Union was ready to deploy laser or particle beam weapons. (Part of the same technology that the Reagan administration signed up for three years ago with the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars.)

The magazine's main source for the stories was Gen. George J. Keegan, a retired Air Force chief of intelligence who was convinced the Soviets were preparing to zap an unsuspecting United States. Keegan sounded the alarm with a speech at the Army-Navy Club in 1977. Aviation Week's top editors were intrigued.

The magazine printed the speech's text and followed it up with a spate of stories that fueled a vociferous debate about U.S. preparedness.

To this day, few doubt Keegan's sincerity, but the story is widely regarded to have been proven wrong, according to Pentagon officials and defense analysts.

The magazine's editors say they were simply running with a good story, though there was intense internal debate about the coverage. "We felt this was a significant technological development that ought to be put into perspective . . . Our job is not to go out and promote, although by inference we end up doing that I suppose."

"Any publication in the world is used," says Coleman. "Maybe we were."

Aviation Week's coverage of Pentagon waste and procurement problems is another issue critics seize upon. Though the magazine is rigorous in its reports of which fighter plane failed what flight test, it rarely adds up the black marks and concludes that a program is too flawed to save, or unnecessary.

There are plenty of readers who think that's all to the better. "There's a lot more that goes into canceling a program than raw test results," says a retired Pentagon reporter.

To others, though, it is an approach politely known as looking on the bright side. "What you get is the dream world where everything works and every cost is justified," says writer Easterbrook.

The magazine's coverage of the Navy's $40 billion, problem-plagued F18 jet fighter is one example sometimes cited. The plane was widely criticized as an inadequate replacement for existing bombers because, among other flaws, its range was too limited. When the Navy's issued its own critical report it noted the planes gobbled so much fuel that the only way to make them effective bombers would be to buy new tanker planes so that each F18 could go out with its own fuel plane bringing up the rear.

The Aviation Week headline: "Report Finds F-18 Boosts Tanker Need."

And when the civilian world learned that the Air Force had ordered $7,000 coffee makers for its C5A cargo planes, the same coffee makers civilian airline companies purchase for $2,700, Aviation Week saw an opportunity for an editorial entitled "More Posturing Over Procurement."

The essay said that while "$7,000 coffee makers and $170 flashlights are difficult to defend . . . that does not mean that the prices are inflated or unreal. For the kind of light the Air Force bought, Air Force bought, aircraft quality and designed for emergency operation and high [gravity] tolerance, the cost does move on up." High gravity tolerance was a reference to Pentagon specifications that the coffeepot be able to keep on perking after the plane had lost all cabin pressure -- in short, long after any human passenger could survive.

It was, some said, a tortuous apologia for a system that deserved condemnation. Aviation Week saw it as a chance to explain the complexities and costs of developing state-of-the-art equipment.

The editors defend their approach as entirely proper.

"What we'll do," says Coleman, "is report three out of, say, five times the thing spun out."

"We don't look at ourselves as judges, to say 'this piece of equipment is a piece of junk,' " says bureau chief Ropelewski. "We're not 'watchdogs.' We monitor the industry."