Fate is the Hunter

Gann in airline uniform

Belatedly perhaps, I have only just read Fate is the Hunter by Ernest K. Gann, widely regarded as one of the greatest books on aviation ever written. There have been a boat-load of good books written about aviation, so this is quite a reputation to have.

To my eyes, the amazing part of Gann’s memoir is actually not the incredible stories of early airline pilots: the pioneering routes in what are now considered classic aircraft, the willingness to cross oceans never flown over before and the risks taken to do so – risks which these days would be laughed at for their preposterousness. No, what struck me most of all were the similarities between the world Gann describes and the world of the modern airline pilot.

Consolidated C-87 – Gann had a particular dislike for this type of aircraft.

His experiences span the 1930’s, the Second World War and the 1950’s afterward, so you could be forgiven for thinking this was a ‘golden age’ of airline flying, far removed from the staggering familiarity with which most people now greet the experience of levitation. Yet much of Gann’s experience would still be relevant to today’s airline pilots: I had no idea how hard the 1930’s airline pilot worked! Multi-sector days, 85 hours a month, fully manual flight, in all weathers, in the depths of night. We complain now about 100 hours a month of fully automatic flight.

He describes carelessly, entries in his logbook detailing engine failures and hydraulic problems, which at that time, to him, were nothing to be concerned about. Today’s airline pilots continually practice controlling engine failures on their jets, and it is easy to question why we do this because engine failures are so rare. The casual nature of Gann’s description of these events provides a window back in time, to when commercial aviation was finding its feet and rules were being written. Our modern-day practice is, in large part, due to our predecessors’ very real requirement to practice engine failures.

Modern-day pilots still get relentlessly examined on controlling an engine failure, despite a new age of reliability. The practice is a throw-back to when such failures were all-too common.

Gann describes at length his pre-occupation with ‘the numbers’ – the airline seniority system in which one man’s fate may be determined over another’s. It’s a system which has nothing to do with either mens’ skills as pilots, or virtues as people. One number might be lucky, another might not. To Gann, the numbers being bad to you meant probable death, but they also represented less permanent changes in fortune. The numbers dictate your likelihood of promotion, or demotion, or of being fired. Today, nothing has changed.

Gann’s experiences span an incredible period of modern history, and are inspiring, awe-some, and humbling in equal measure. His perspective is not that of the victor; the pilot writing after a ‘high-flying’ career. In his way, he is himself the victim of a fate shared by so many who work in our business. He finds himself made redundant and forced to find work wherever he can. After thousands of hours in command, a million miles of ocean crossed and pioneering new routes around the world, he flies as co-pilot on a small aircraft hauling the freight nobody else wants to carry across the Pacific, at night.

Gann’s story therefore strikes a chord with any pilot, of any experience. He is a true flyer, bound to the sky in ways he cannot define. In attempting to do so in his book, he shows us that despite seventy years and a different world of speed and comfort, some things don’t ever change.

Latest Blog Posts

Catching the bug

What does the ongoing Novel Coronavirus pandemic mean for those considering a career in aviation? The answer might not be as intuitive as you think.

If at first you don’t succeed…

For years and years I have been trying to prove my worth in hang gliding. Entering competitions in the beginners class...

Flying the Flag

Military flying careers are among the most challenging going. A while back I wrote about some things you can do to prepare if it's a career choice that appeals to you.

Looking back in angst, how far has GA come since 2014?

In 2014 the UK government announced a new approach to GA and we had high hopes, but how well do they match today's reality?

Flying in Monte Cucco, Italy

This year (June 2017), the British hang gliding national competition was held in Monte Cucco, Italy. This competition saw 40 pilots come together from...

Most Popular

Junior Gliding – The most fun you can have in the sky!

The lack of an engine isn't stopping the UK's Junior Gliding movement from driving the country's aviation industry forward.

Flying on Film

What do Batman, James Bond and Easy Company have in common? They all fly with the same airline... kind of.

The Beauty of Coastal Gliding

The UK has an expansive coastline which gives rise to some excellent coastal flying sites, especially in the south including Perranporth, Chapel...

RAF(U) Swanwick: Gate Guardian Returns

Hawker Siddley Harrier XW917 is removed, renovated and replaced as proud Gate Guardian at RAF(U) Swanwick

The London Flight Sim: An immersive flying experience

The London Flight Sim. Versatile, realistic, and totally immersive. Make sure you book your visit soon.