Mary's Library

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

To Fly

I have long been fascinated by aviation and its history. Perhaps this is the natural result of having spent my youth in something of an Air Force town. When I was growing up on Spokane's Northside, heavy bombers would fly overhead every day on their way to land at Fairchild Air Force Base.

Or, maybe it comes from living in a State where the Boeing Company is a major employer. During my college days in Seattle, I never got tired of driving down I-5 and seeing rows of 747s lined up at Boeing Field, painted in the liveries of airlines from around the world, and awaiting delivery.

Perhaps most of all, though, this love of aviation comes from reading a book. To this day, I still believe that the best book about aviation ever written is the memoir by Ernest K. Gann (1910-1991), Fate is the Hunter (1961). (Hollywood appended the name of this book to a thoroughly dreadful movie. Please steer clear of that.) Gann recounts his early interest in aviation during the 1920s and his career as a commercial aviation pilot in the 1930s and 1940s. He also includes an account of his wartime experiences as an air transport pilot.

The book is filled with memorable passages. The one I recall best, though, is his account of flying a DC-2 to Newark, New Jersey, in the late 1930s when he was still a young co-pilot and flying with an eccentric (and sometimes apparently sadistic) captain by the name of Ross.

Then as we start the turn for the final descent, which is always the most complicated and demanding in accuracy, Ross takes a box of matches from his pocket and lights them one after another under my nose. I gasp a protest. I am heavily engaged in trying to hold course and altitude exactly according to the book. This is the real thing. It counts.

"What the hell are you doing?"

I am bewildered. If I were not so extremely busy I would brush the flame away. It is difficult to see the instruments beyond the flame, and Ross holds it just close enough to make breathing difficult.

I blow out the match. Ross at once lights another. I am fifty feet too low, the compass is swinging in a direction it should not, and my speed is falling off.

"Steady . . ."

Ross's voice is calm and without malice or mischief. Then what in God's name is he up to? The performance, on which I was just about to congratulate myself, is rapidly going to pieces.


As one match after another flares before my eyes I become infuriated with Ross. He is a sadist, sick with weird complexities. He is afraid I will do a good job. To Hell with him! I will keep everything as it should be regardless of his jealous interference.


As we turn for the final descent I shove the propeller controls to full low pitch. We are exactly at required altitude, the speed is right, and also the course.

Ross shakes out his match and sits back in his seat. I glance at him, my resentment doubling when I discover him smiling. We will have this out on the ground!


When the engines are stopped I complete the logbook in wounded silence.


I snap the logbook shut and am about to stand up when I feel his heavy hand on my shoulder. My grip on the metal logbook tightens. If he tries one of his playful swings ---

But his voice is surprisingly tired and so is his smile. "Anyone can do this job when things are going right. In this business we play for keeps."

A few years later, when Gann had to deal with a fire in the cockpit during a wartime flight, he fully understood the worth of Ross's unorthodox lesson.


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