Five Aviation Lessons from “Fate is the Hunter”

Five Aviation Lessons from “Fate is the Hunter”

By Dean Zakos, EAA 557439

I recently read Fate is the Hunter, Ernest K. Gann’s well-known (at least within the pilot community) book about his flying experiences in the 1930s and 1940s.

Ernie started “flying the line” for a scheduled airline in the mid-1930s. His first passenger aircraft was the Douglas DC-2. Later aircraft in civilian airline livery were the DC-3 and DC-4 and, during the World War II years, the C-47 (DC-3), C-87 (B-24), and C-54 (DC-4).

He logged a prodigious number of hours as a professional pilot. He flew many routes, including numerous trips across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. He also had significant time flying in South America, the Middle East, India, and western China. Ernie was uniquely qualified to write about flying experiences.

Here are five things that Fate is the Hunter teaches that are as relevant to pilots today as they were when Gann first learned these lessons (sometimes the hard way) during aviation’s golden age.

1. Don’t trust; verify

The very simple lesson here is to remember that it is your life on the line when you leave the runway behind. Of course, you can’t personally perform all the servicing, maintenance, and air traffic control functions on or for the aircraft you fly but, as pilot in command, you will need to keep a continuous sharp eye out for errors or omissions committed by others or other irregularities that may affect your aircraft’s ability to stay safely in the air.

A good example of this appears early on in Fate is the Hunter. Due to a misunderstanding, Ernie once departed on a scheduled airline flight with significantly less fuel on board than he thought he had. He became aware of this fact when both engines quit at cruise altitude while en route to his destination. Luckily, he had sufficient altitude to glide to a landing on a nearby airport runway. The culprit was the line guy who incorrectly fueled the airplane, but Ernie rightly blamed himself, as he personally did not follow-up or “stick the tanks” and verify the quantity of fuel on board and needed for the flight.

Another interesting story to prove this point also almost cost Ernie his life. He was flying a DC-4 after the war for an airline. Ernie considered the DC-4 a very safe and reliable aircraft.

After takeoff on a flight from San Francisco to Honolulu, as the aircraft ascended above 3,000 feet, all four big radials began acting up, with at least one of the engines quitting entirely. Had the crew not taken immediate action to adjust throttles, mixtures, and prop pitch, all four engines likely would have stopped turning.

The mystery of the reluctant engines was solved after they nursed the aircraft back to San Francisco. Prior to the flight, unknown to the flight crew, the spark plugs had been replaced with a “new and improved” version for this model of Pratt & Whitney engines. The new engine/spark plug combination had never been field tested, but the Pratt & Whitney engineers had assured their higher-ups that their slide rules confirmed the plugs would work. The plugs did not; at least not above 3,000 feet. Had Ernie viewed the engine log books or made some inquiries about the nature of the maintenance performed on the aircraft, he may have been in a better position to evaluate the real flight risk on the ramp rather than being forced to deal with it in-flight.

2. Plan for the unexpected

Ernie tells numerous stories about how good pre-flight planning saved the day and, conversely, how bad pre-flight planning resulted in taking on substantially more risk in the air.

Every pilot who acts as PIC should understand the importance of pre-flight planning. The forecast weather, the winds aloft, altitudes that are likely to have ice, the possible routes and alternates — all help assure a comfortable and predictable flight and arriving safely at your intended destination.

I think there are two keys here. The first key is that planning is relative. A short local flight on a VFR day (although it still requires some planning) requires significantly less planning than a long cross-country flight through a couple of time zones and into weather or possible icing conditions.

Even if you have done the basic planning for a VFR flight, you may still need to engage in additional planning. If, unexpectedly, the ceilings and visibilities are coming down around you, do you know where to go? Do you have an exit plan? How close is the nearest airport? Is it in front of you, behind you, or off to one side? How high is the terrain and where are the obstacles? If your engine starts to run rough, and you work through your trouble-shooting checklist to no avail, what comes next? Can you maintain altitude? Where is the nearest airport or suitable field for a power-off landing?

The second key is to understand that “You don’t know what you don’t know.” As you may have been advised by the FAA Designated Pilot Examiner when you passed your first check ride, as a pilot you now have a “license to learn.”

3. Don’t lose situational awareness

At the beginning of Fate is the Hunter, a long list of names gives a sobering reminder of what can happen to pilots. These are the names of pilots Ernie knew or flew with, all friends, who lost their lives flying. Some accidents were due to severe weather, some due to engines quitting on takeoff, and some were mid-air collisions. Some accident causes were never definitively determined. A substantial number of accidents could be attributed to loss of situational awareness.

Situational awareness in the 1930s and 1940s often involved very simple things a pilot needed to do. First, looking out the window. Pilots back then had the disadvantage (some would say advantage) of not having as much on the instrument panel to look at as aids to situational awareness. Also, pilots back then often flew primarily by sighting landmarks and by reference to heading, groundspeed, wind drift, time, and distance. Pilotage and dead reckoning were the primary means of navigation. In IMC or at night, when you had to let down in the soup or low visibility conditions, knowing there was a mountain range or towers or buildings across your path that you needed to clear, determining exactly where you were and at what altitude was often the difference between going home at the end of the flight or becoming a memory to your friends.

Situational awareness is still important to pilots today. We have so many more advantages in the cockpit now. GPS approaches, moving maps, ground speed readouts, and ADS-B traffic call outs all make flying easier, safer, and more enjoyable. However, this potentially leads to pilots flying with their heads down in the cockpit, tuning knobs and staring intently at screens. One of the most effective things we can still do to maintain situational awareness today is to continue to look out the window. Time with our heads down and our thoughts occupied by technology in the panel should be consciously limited. It can save your life if you make the effort to divide your time between looking outside and looking at the panel.

4. If you love flying, you willingly accept some risk

The fact that we, as pilots, choose to fly says something about our level of risk tolerance.  Flying is not inherently safe. There are no guarantees. However, good instruction, training, practice, experience, and good decision making can all make flying much safer.

Although pilots accept some risks, good pilots with good judgment do not accept unreasonable risks. Also, once a good pilot identifies risks, he or she takes the appropriate action to eliminate or mitigate them, up to and including staying on the ground.

Ernie mentions a few airline pilots he knew who he suspected were secretly afraid to fly and attempted to avoid any risks. He said trying to fly that way is impractical and unnecessary. What I understood him to mean is that pilots need to respect dangers and take reasonable risks, but we should not allow our fears to control our flying. If you fear stalls, crosswind landings, or face other daunting (to you) issues in your flying, go up periodically with a capable instructor and meet your perceived flying impediments head-on. Once you do, you will be rewarded with a much higher comfort level.

I look at it this way: if a pilot’s life is lost flying, I don’t think we should lament that “He died doing what he loved.” Rather we should celebrate that “He lived doing what he loved.”

5. Enjoy the camaraderie and friendship of fellow aviation enthusiasts

Many pilots and lovers of aviation are attracted to airplanes and flying from a very young age. Others come to discover flying over time. What both groups have learned is that there is significant benefit to flying. Aviation attracts people who are smart, motivated, and talented. Who wouldn’t want to be around a crowd of people like that?

Ernie enjoyed immensely the company and friendship of his fellow pilots. It was not only the shared experiences, but it was also the shared passion for aviation.

As pilots today, we can continue to enjoy that shared experience and passion. One of the best things I did when I started flying was to fly with other pilots. I sought out pilots with good reputations. Even when I was not PIC, I learned a great deal sitting in the right seat watching good pilots at work. Also, because of those shared cockpit experiences, it is easy to make and keep very good friends.

Another great opportunity to share your passion with like-minded aviators is to join groups such as EAA or type or flying clubs. Aviation enthusiasts come from all walks of life, but we share the same passion.

Sadly, Ernie Gann is no longer with us. But he left behind interesting stories about his pilot experiences and, in some small way we today share in his flying legacy.

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