More than love

Ernest K. Gann (1910 – 1991)

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.

Ernest K Gann Quote

Here, Gann is describing his class of already qualified commercial pilots who are filling hard-won places on an American Airlines induction course in the latter years of the Great Depression. 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 American 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.

Stay lucky

Ernest K Gann
Ernest K. Gann in his Captain’s uniform – most likely that of the Matson Line shortly after WW2. Matson flew ex-USAAF C-54s, aircraft Gann was intimately familiar with. (Photo from University of Houston ‘Engines of Our Ingenuity‘ site.)

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.

20 thoughts on “More than love

  1. Though certainly a classic, to me Gann’s work is as much a time capsule as anything you could dig up out of the ground. There was both a danger and a romance about flying which the ensuing decades have largely erased. We are safer — and, it must be said, poorer — for it.

    I suppose it’s easy for those of us who ply the night in machines Gann’s contemporaries could only have dreamed of to wax poetic about such things. His 396 colleagues certainly wouldn’t have looked back.

    1. Happy New Year, Ron. You make me wonder how much danger and romance future generations will view today’s jets, turboprops and pistons with…
      Regardless, I think Airbus (especially, but not exclusively) have proven that no amount of computer aided, safety buffered systems can stop accidents from happening.
      The laws of physics, fortune and inattention are as immutable as ever.

      1. So true! There is still danger and romance in aviation–but far less in the airlines. It’s just so commonplace nowadays. Shouldn’t be that way, but it is unfortunately.

        I think future generations may have a chance to put some of the danger and romance back into flying via experimentals, drones, supersonic bizjets, and the like. Time will tell!

      2. Absolutely. I’m guessing most people don’t want danger in their airline experience, but I wish we were better able to keep the romance alive. And, yes, there ARE ways to experience the joy and thrill of flight – just not at the helm of the big iron.

  2. Gann is up there with the best aviation writers and Fate is a classic. I used a quote from it in my book on the B-24. He flew C-87s in the CBI and once nearly demolished the Taj Mahal taking off with a double load of PSP on board.

    1. Yep, he had quite a lot of time (and stories) on C-87s. The poor Liberator Express copped a lot of bad reviews, especially because the Davis wing was quite sensitive to ice. On the other hand, that was a double load – not an overload, mind you, DOUBLE. It shouldn’t even have got into the air!

  3. Wow, amazing story. I find it incredible that someone could have 10,000 hours of flying time under their belt!
    I totaly agree with the quote. All of us who fly are deffinitly a slave to the art. I espceially like what Leonardo da Vinci has to say about flying, “For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”
    Anywho, Happy New Year!

    1. Hi Hannah. Yeah, 10,000 is a big number, isn’t it? And those would have been ‘flying hours’ too – not a lot of autopilot and systems monitoring…
      That da Vinci quote is, I think, a favourite of most all pilots, if only because it rings so true. Ironically, it’s not truly by Leonardo da Vinci – at least not that anyone can verify. There’s an interesting discussion here ( that traces it back to a 1970s TV documentary called ‘I, Leonardo da Vinci’ – but there’s no trace of it in any of da Vinci’s own writings.
      Not that any of that diminishes his genius, including his potential to appreciate the allure of flight without ever experiencing it for himself!

      1. Airline pilots with a 30-year plus career easily log in the neighborhood of 20,000 hours of flight time. Also mentioned in the article, Gann’s 10,000 hours would have more than likely been in aircraft that were hand flown. True but it should be be noted, the hours Gann logged with a co-pilot were shared hours. Some Captains were famous for making their co-pilots do a lot of the enroute hand flying. A lot of the Captians were not nice to fly with. (Gann’s The High and The Mighty touches that part of flying in the early days.)

      2. I’m not sure when Gann quit flying, but it was after a lot less than 30 years – more like 10 – and yeah, there was a lot less cockpit diplomacy in his day. All up, I think we can agree that he earned his stripes… 🙂

  4. I enjoyed reading about Gann. A small thing that caught my eye. I am sure the uniform featured in the Gann picture was not one worn by United Air Line pilots during the 1930s or 1940s. UAL uniforms were grey – the uniform in the picture looks black. Also, the emblem on the hat doesn’t match the distinct three bladed propeller that was part of the United hat emblem until the recent United/Continental uniform change a few years ago – and United did not have white hat covers.

  5. Gann flew for AMERICAN AIRLINES NOT United (It’s in his book!).. He flew as Captain for MATSON LINE and the US GOVERNMENT during WWII so he COULD BE CAPTAIN.. READ his Books, it’s all in there. I met a few of the two stripper (professional Flight Engineers that flew with him), but also actually read all of his books..

    1. Upon ZOOMING in on your Picture, there is an M on his HAT EMBLEM… That’s his MATSON uniform I’ll wager.. Again actually read his books, it’s all in there. He NEVER Claims to fly for or affiliate himself with UAL.

      1. Thanks for bringing the error to my attention, John. I have made corrections to the text.
        And I promise you I don’t deliberately include mistakes just to annoy people…

  6. Wasn’t trying to sound like a snot, or annoyed. I HIGHLY recommend you read his book (s).. If you like the quotes, you’ll love the books the ARE BETTER than the quotes.. Trust me.
    Happy Landings.

  7. Love internet based ( fake news) or (lazy news) writing of the 2018 era. The caption says E K Gahn 1920-1981 then in the article it says he was born in Lincoln NE in 1910. Where can I get some more, correct, biographical info on Gahn. I have read several of his books. He was a graduate of Culver Military Academy in Culver IN. They have all his book in their excellent library.

    M Hudson

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