Ernest K. Gann (1920 – 1981)
Of course Ernest K. Gann should need no introduction to the aviation enthusiast ( – in every pilot, or the pilot in every enthusiast). But time marches on and knowledge falls off, so it’s worth making sure Fate Is The Hunter remains at the top of the ‘must read’ lists.
For many years, tattered copies of Fate lived in countless flight bags; even more so than battered copies of Top Gun lived in the lockers of Naval aviators.
It always was essential reading for pilots, and it still is.
Here, Gann is describing his class of already qualified commercial pilots who are filling hard-won places on a United Airlines induction course. They will suffer, they will sweat; they would starve and they would sleep rough – but they wouldn’t consider any other line of work.
And, while the setting is 1930s America, the full quote remains universally true for pilots regardless of time, place, employment status or experience level:
“We are, almost without exception, in love. It is more than love at this stage; we are bewitched, gripped solidly in a passion few other callings could generate. Unconsciously or consciously, depending on our individual courage for acknowledgement, we are slaves to the art of flying.”
— Ernest K. Gann, Fate Is The Hunter
A question of fate
Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1910, Ernest Kellogg Gann worked as a film maker for most of the 1930s. He obtained his pilot’s certificate in 1937 and found limited work as an itinerant pilot and instructor until he was hired by United Airlines to fly DC-2s and DC-3s.
Like many pilots, he was absorbed into the Air Transport Command during WW2 – flying C-47s, C-54s, and C-87s around the world (including over the North Atlantic and the Himalayas). After the war he chose to work for a series of small start-up airlines, before quitting airline life to write.
Fate Is The Hunter
While it could well be the seminal aviation memoir, Fate Is The Hunter is only superficially about flying. Gann wrote over 20 aviation books… but this one is actually about luck.
Through examples taken from his log books, Gann is out to show that his survival through 10,000 precarious hours aloft was not only due to science, skill, or art.
The insight is laid bare in the memorable Prologue, where Gann describes the awkward devotion-denial relationship aviation has with ‘fate’. He writes how “…the factor of luck is officially ignored by those engaged in any endeavour dependent upon science and machinery. Those charged with the success of the enterprise must ignore luck – or they will soon go crazy.”
And following an aviation accident, investigators “…must never, regardless of their discoveries, write off a crash as simply a case of bad luck. They must never, for fear of official ridicule, admit other than to themselves, which they all do, that some totally unrecognizable genie has once again unbuttoned his pants and urinated on the pillar of science.”
Of course, with all his experience in formative airlines, in flying military transport in World War 2, in post-war commercial aviation, and especially in losing friends, Gann knew better.
He understood that flying needs some luck – and that Fate Is The Hunter.
So, with that knowledge, he dedicates his magnum opus to no fewer than 396 of his civil aviation colleagues ‘whose luck was not as good as mine‘.
Three hundred and ninety-six.
There’s a lot to learn from his examples, including how you can help make your own luck good.