Sunday, July 13, 2008

"Fate Is The Hunter"

While The Right Stuff may be a better work of literature, Ernest K Gann's Fate Is The Hunter is easily the best book on flying I've read. Amazon UK's customers seem to think so too - 38 reviews and 37 are five-star. Gann himself was quite a character - starting out in the film industry, he became pilot, sailor, author, artist and conservationist.

The Right Stuff is in a way only incidentally about flying and space. It's about America, about character, exceptional people and exceptional bravery - but not just bravery. "The right stuff" was the highest combination of bravery, determination, skill and experience :

"... the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment - and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day ... A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher ..."
Wolfe was writing about an extreme. But the Right Stuff still exists at the lower levels of the pyramid - if indeed it's fair to talk about lower levels. Wolfe's characters, pushing the envelope at every opportunity and with a career death rate of 25% plus, aren't necessarily best suited to ferrying passengers or freight day in, day out. Gann's pilots (mostly) don't go pushing the envelope - but the envelope will still come to push them, and it's then that the right stuff will show (or fail to show) itself. And just as the elected on the ziggurat never talked about the right stuff but in code, so do simple phrases like 'reliable' come to mean a lot more than turning up on time.
"I have over eight thousand hours of flying, and every time an unusual event occurs in the cockpit, I'm brought back to the characters in this book."

" Without question, the one book that lets us know how each and everyone of us feels about the love we call flying."

"As a career aviator, I have experienced countless moments -- lifelong memories which I thought would go forever uncommunicable. Gann has done the impossible -- he has captured them on the written page to be shared by all."

"I have carried it with me in my flight bag for over twenty five years."

"I am a military pilot with 2500 hours and 13 years in fighter and heavy aircraft. This book is right on the money; I couldn't put it down."

" When people ask me why I fly, this is the book I tell them to read."

"Pilots know that flying is not just transportation but a way of learning who you really are, the stuff you are made of. This book is clearly Gann's masterwork. After reading the chapter on thunderstorms, I thought that there was just no better aviation writing and I still had half the book to go. Of course, then came the chapter on flying in ice."

Over the next week or so I'll post some condensed chunks from the chapter on flying in ice. It's the mid-30s and the regularly scheduled plane, a DC-3, is grounded for maintenance. A DC-2 is substituted for the trip from Nashville to New York. The flight proves to be Gann’s first encounter with icing - and almost his last.

Fate Is The Hunter - Ice I

Fate Is The Hunter - Ice II