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‘Fate is the Hunter’: Respect to Richard McSpadden and Russ Francis.
A small-airplane crash this past weekend, with larger ramifications.
Ernest K. Gann in his airline pilot days. (Via CBC radio.)
There are many excellent books by pilots about aviation. But the one that has left the deepest imprint on me is Fate is the Hunter, by Ernest K. Gann, published in 1961.
Gann, who was born in Nebraska before World War I, dreamed of a career on Broadway or in Hollywood. After adventures that included a stint at the Yale drama school and working on a documentary film crew in mid-1930s Germany, he came back to the US and ended up learning to fly and doing a variety of commercial-flight odd jobs. While still in his 20s, he became an airline pilot, then a WW II military pilot, then again an airline pilot after the war. And eventually a sailor, best-selling novelist, and screenwriter.
The theme of Fate is the unknowable frontier between what human beings can plan and prepare for, and what just happens, despite their plans. He doesn’t say in the book, “Man proposes, God disposes.” But that’s what it amounts to.
Most of the airline and military pilots he describes in Fate prepare carefully, and fly skillfully. Yet for reasons beyond any of their control, some of them survive, and some don’t. There is no rational reason why.
From his airline days just after the war, Gann describes a debriefing by an expert engineer who, over dinner, explains that if Gann, as pilot, had happened to do anything even slightly differently during a recent flight, he and all his passengers would have died:
“Let me touch you,” Howard [the engineer] said. "When we eat I'd like to sit at your side. Maybe some of your luck will drip on me."
He caressed my shoulder and then my arm as if I were some pagan statue and I was exceedingly embarrassed.
"Yes, you're the living proof that it doesn't pay to be overly smart."
Howard, the engineer, goes into a detailed description of why Gann’s airliner, a DC-4, had somehow escaped a design-flaw fate that had brought another DC-4 airliner to a flaming crash near Bainbridge, Maryland, that killed 53 people. The flaw involved a complicated aerodynamic problem known as “unporting.”
He began by saying that my written report on the suspected [engine] vibration had been a masterpiece of innocence. He stated flatly that if I had any training as an engineer I would never have had the opportunity to write it. It seemed that only a most remarkable series of causes and effects had kept us from duplicating the catastrophe of Bainbridge. The aura of fantasy was compounded when we considered both had occurred on the same day…
“Listen to me very carefully [the engineer said]. I've spent too much time on this investigation to miss the finale.”…
"Although we can never be absolutely certain, we now believe the Eastern Airline crash at Bainbridge was caused by ‘unporting.’ Do you know what that is?"
I confessed that I had never heard of it. [Remember, Gann is an airline pilot.]
He sighed heavily and drew wavelike lines on the table, then an airplane diving for the lines. He sketched another airplane more precisely and marked its approximate center of gravity. "Did you slow down when you first noticed the vibration? You did not because you had no fear of it. But if you had been the nervous type, if you slowed down, the center of gravity would have changed. That would have been quite enough to complete the process of unporting which had partially begun.
“So you sat there, fat, dumb, and happy, and you canceled all power reductions. This brilliant decision saved your life the first time that day."
I could think of nothing to say but a series of well . . . well's.
Howard held up one finger and then raised a second beside it.
"This was not enough," he said, and I saw that he was exasperated. "You landed at Burbank and disembarked twenty-one passengers. God alone knows why, but you took on just enough fuel to make up the difference in losing their weight. Even so your center of gravity would have been changed enough so that unporting was more likely than not. But . . ."
He moved a third finger up beside the others.
"You were in a hurry to reach Oakland so you could go about your silly sailing. As a result, and don't try to deny it because the figures are in the logbook, you used full gross weight cruising power all the way and your speed was correspondingly high…” He paused, touched at his mustache, and stared at me incredulously.
Then he spoke very slowly, clipping off each word as if he intended to impress them on my memory forever.
"I would look at you quite differently if I thought you had planned what we eventually discovered. We had some long sessions with our slide rules and we found, my friend, that you had arranged the only possible combination of power, speed, and weight which would blockade the chances of unporting."
Later, when the wine had mellowed us both, I asked Howard if his slide rule could measure the fate of one man against another's.
I think of this today because of the shocking news within the aviation world that Richard McSpadden has died this weekend in a small-airplane crash near Lake Placid, in upstate New York. Along with him in the plane, and also killed, was Russ Francis, a star player for the New England Patriots in their early years and also an accomplished pilot.
Why was this shocking, beyond being tragic? Because Richard McSpadden has been as skilled and safety-minded as anyone could possibly be within aviation.
—He was a commander and flight leader of the US Air Force’s Thunderbirds team.
—After leaving the Air Force he went to the Air Safety Institute (ASI), for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA).
—After most recent aviation mishaps, he has narrated ASI videos on what the piloting community could learn from what went wrong. I have frequently quoted and drawn from his videos, for instance in this post last year. You can see him in action below:
— He was also the host of the “There I was..” podcast on aviation safety issues.
As with nearly all aviation mishaps, what happened to Richard McSpadden and Russ Francis is still under investigation. That is what he would tell us in one of his videos, if he were reporting on this event.
All of us, as human beings, live in the moment, and cannot take tomorrow for granted.
Any of us who undertake risky vocations and avocations understand, as Ernest K. Gann explained—and with him Beryl Markham, Charles Lindbergh, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Richard Bach, James Salter, Wolfgang and William Langewiesche, many others—that we are dealing with a combination of preparation, and fate.
It appears that a problem on takeoff was the cause of this latest tragedy. Over the past 25-plus years, I’ve taken off as a pilot more than 2,500 times—at least once in all 48 of the continental states.
I still have nightmares about one of those takeoffs. (It was in Vermont. On a grass runway. After a rain. With trees at the end of the runway. And the wrong flap settings. And a full load. Including family members.) Of the 2,500-plus landings,1 there are five I try to avoid thinking about at 3am. One in western Kentucky, in low clouds and fog. One at night in downtown Detroit, when the plane’s landing light failed on approach. One outside DC, on a stormy night, with gale-force cross-winds. Another in Texas, also on a dark and stormy night. Another in high, hot conditions in Salt Lake City. All it takes is one.
We all live on the edge, in the moment. We propose; fate disposes. Part of the seduction of aviation, as Ernest K. Gann and many other pilot-authors have made clear, is heightening that reality.
My respects and condolences to the families affected by this latest calamity. Let us all make the best use of the time we have.
At age 81, Ernest K. Gann died in his bed.
Trivia bonus: Why does Air Force One have one more takeoff than landings? Because that is the call sign when the serving president is on board. In 1974, Air Force One took off with Richard Nixon aboard—but en route from Washington DC to California, his resignation from office took effect, and the plane landed with a different call sign.