Today, Ernest Gann. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
People ask where I get ideas
for this program. Well, the issue isn't ideas; it's
involvement. After I ran into three different
Spitfires at three air museums, all within two
weeks, I began seeing Spitfires in my sleep. I
clearly had to disgorge myself of Spitfires so I
did a program on them,
and I could then sleep again.
Now writer Ernest Gann has been working upon my
subconscious in just that way. Born in 1910, Gann
was raised in my own St. Paul. Among his huge
output of fine books are The High and the
Mighty, Twilight for the Gods, Island in the Sky,
The Aviator, and Soldier of Fortune
-- all of which were made into major movies.
When I visited the 1940 Air
Terminal Museum here in Houston, they had a
copy of his book, Fate is the Hunter. (The
movie version of that one starred Glenn Ford and
Suzanne Pleshette.) When he was a teenager, Gann
knew my mother, so I bought the book.
Now that I've read Fate is the Hunter,
it's clear why the museum features it. It's an
autobiography of Gann's years as an airline pilot
during the 1930s and early '40s, and of his war
years with the Air Transport Command.
What a terrifyingly dangerous business commercial
flying was in the embryonic years of the airlines!
The book is one brush with death after another. He
opens with a remarkable scene: He drifts to fifty
feet above his stipulated altitude of five thousand
feet. It's an ignorable error, but, after a while
(and only on a rather compulsive whim) he corrects
it. Moments later, an oncoming plane, far off its
own course, passes just fifty feet over his head.
So Gann is alive, when another perfectly able pilot
might be dead. The book follows down that rather
fatalistic road. Hundreds of early airline pilots
died -- many better than he. Fate, he believes, is
the whimsical hunter who takes them down at random.
He writes with the rhythm of Herman Melville.
You're drawn into the inner world of the pilot's
cockpit -- a place that feels so removed and safe
that peril always arrives unexpected.
Yet something tells you this remarkable person made
his own fate. A distinguished sailor, as well as a
pilot, he was also a painter and photographer. And
he began in theater. As a teenager, he meant to be
a moviemaker. We have a family photo that he took
in 1925, when he was just learning one of his many
skills. It shows my mother holding my older brother
on her lap.
Only later did Gann become, first a barnstormer,
then a pioneer airline pilot. He built an
incredible many-dimensioned life. He painted
himself as fate's object, a heritor of better luck
than his comrades. But I sense a dimension of
modesty in that.
Early flight was dangerous beyond our comprehension
and fate surely did hunt those flyers. Still, I
doubt that we're such easy prey. It was more than
just luck that Gann lived to the age of 81 on San
Juan Island in Puget Sound -- surrounded by the
boats and paintings, technological and natural
beauty that he'd always loved.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
E. K. Gann, Fate is the Hunter. New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1986.
For more of Gann's books, see Amazon.com
For more on Gann, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_K._Gann/
I am most grateful to Gann's daughter, Polly Gann
Wrench, of Houston, TX, and to James H. Lienhard of
Portland, Oregon, for their counsel.
Polly Wrench has graciously provided several
photos of Gann (including the one above) and one of
his paintings. To see them, CLICK
HERE. (This is a large file
and may load slowly, but it's worth the wait.)
The Douglas DC-2, the flawed predecessor of the
. This was the
airplane in which Ernest Gann learned the work of
On a personal note: My mother, 9 years Gann's senior, knew the young Ernie Gann.
While he was a high school student, learning movie making, she agreed to be
his movie subject -- reading to her young son, my older brother. Click here
to see an old photo of Gann, kneeling, with his fellow students, shooting my
mother and brother ca. 1927/8.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.