Fate is the Hunter: A 5-Star Review
By Matt Gabbard, Advertising Coordinator, Ferry Pilot and CFII
I learned to fly in the days before GPS was common, as it is today, readily available in so many airplanes. The early 90s was a time of transition, however, as airspace reclassification and new technologies were beginning to appear. But for my private pilot checkride, I demonstrated navigational skills such as pilotage, dead reckoning and VOR intercepting and tracking. So I have, through the years, become decently proficient in getting from point A to point B using these various methods. As an instructor, I have taught my students to do the same, admonishing them to always know where they are and utilizing all available methods of navigating that are available in the airplane.
With respect to all the amazing ways to get around the sky nowadays, I was recently humbled as I read the fascinating book Fate is the Hunter by Ernest K. Gann. I believe it should be required reading for aspiring pilots, and especially to aspiring corporate and airline pilots. It is an autobiographical look into the early days of airline and transport flying and the author takes us along on harrowing, death-defying (for him) journeys across the country and the globe. What makes the stories so captivating is the fact that they take place in a very dangerous time in air travel; it was, after all, in its infancy. Before the book even begins, Gann takes almost five whole pages to list all the captains, co-pilots and colleagues he ever flew with who were killed in some capacity while flying. It is a sobering look at the true risk implicit in the early days of commercial aviation.
The various hazards those early pilots faced are the same as modern day ones: icing, thunderstorms, turbulence, low ceilings. The difference comes with how available observations and forecasts are. Another difference is how well our airplanes are equipped. So available are the forecasts that it is almost inexcusable for a pilot to be caught unaware when it comes to weather hazards. But it does happen, and even the most weather-prepared pilots still can be surprised by un-forecast situations.
Ice, for one, is a particularly formidable flight hazard. After more than a century of powered flight, much has been done to combat it. So much of this research, however, has been (rightly so) to enhance commercial aviation. Even during one of Gann’s flights in the late 1930s, he talks about an accumulation of ice on his anti-ice equipped DC-2 that almost kills him, his captain and the nine other souls on board. During this ordeal, he writes “Where are the engineers again? The wings should somehow be heated.” Heated wings are a staple of modern airliners thanks to bleed air from the engines. Even more modern technologies utilize a metal substance to be sprayed on to wings, and this substance acts as an electrical conductor for the heat to be applied to the wing’s surface.* But for general aviation, about the best we can do at this point is TKS fluid and the weeping-wing concept. It is effective, but only if used in times of suspected icing and not after your airplane has accumulated any amount of ice.
One of the most deadly flying hazards to all pilots, especially non-instrument-rated pilots, is VFR flight into Instrument Meteorological Conditions, or IMC. The ugly by-product is frequently CFIT – Controlled Flight into Terrain. According to www.Skybrary.aero, “Although loss of control (LOC) and continued flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents by VFR pilots in IMC typically account only for a proportion of the total number of GA [General Aviation] accidents, such occurrences account for 75% of weather related GA fatalities.”** Again, even experienced instrument-rated pilots are not immune to this dangerous phenomenon. But in Gann’s day, if they could get below the cloud deck and remain clear, they would fly, as the following account illustrates:
Imaging taking a 2-engine transport plane overnight from the coast of Maine to Greenland, arriving early in the morning only to find that you have to descend through an overcast, the base of which is well below 500’ above the sea, all the while maneuvering to avoid icebergs which stick up 50’ above the water. Now imagine, without the aid of any reliable radio navigation aid (much less GPS), finding your way to the correct fjord which leads up to your destination landing strip. Recall, if you will, that the ceiling is very low and the walls of the fjord are very high and there is quite literally NO room to turn your large transport around if you should find that you are in the wrong fjord. The only option you would have would be to climb, and if you choose to do so, you are climbing blind and dumb, because you don’t have any reliable charts to guide you safely above the mountains. You are told before your mission that if you see an old, rusted-out supply ship wreck in the water, about thirty miles up the correct fjord, you have chosen wisely, and you should expect to see the landing strip directly. If you don’t see that wreck, chances are you will become an early CFIT statistic. He chose a fjord and maneuvered his plane through “a tunnel, squeezed between rock, water, and cloud.” Did Gann and his crew choose the correct fjord? I recommend reading the book.
The saying goes that regulations, specifically the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), are written in blood. Whether it is because of the growing pains associated with the early days of commercial aviation, or the blatant lack of respect by some pilots for Mother Nature and all her wrath, the regulations have been set in place to protect humans from harming themselves, others and the aircraft they fly, as well as property they fly over or near. The sky is very different from the one Ernest Gann flew in, and the world is smaller. But the dangers he faced in his time have not gone away; they are, if nothing else, just as dangerous for us today. Our equipment and education is far superior to his, but if we are not careful fate can still hunt us down if we allow it.