“In this business we play for keeps”

I rolled the trim wheel forward, gently allowing gravity to add to the thrust of the paired Continentals. The satin air allowed the airspeed needle to nuzzle the top of the indicator’s green arc. The inky blackness surrounding the craft was broken only by a dim, rhythmic, red flash from the anti-collision beacon, illuminating the wingtip fuel tanks, as an oasis of golden lights grew larger off the nose.

The craft, a 1966 Cessna 310K, the oasis, the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, the composer and sole observer of this performance, a skinny 19-year old lad in command of Eureka flight 747.

An ambitious call-sign utilized for a bank check-collecting route commissioned by the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas for the timely processing of paper transactions in the 70s. The run began in Amarillo just before sunset and, after multiple stops, returned just before sunrise – if there were no “contingencies.”

Ernest Gann
Flying a Cessna 310 can still make you feel like Ernest K. Gann himself.

As a devotee of Ernest K. Gann’s 1961 book Fate Is the Hunter, I looked upon this route as my own AM-21, the designation of Gann’s usual route as a DC-2/3 pilot with American Airlines in the pre-World War II years. That route in the northeastern U.S. provided Gann with numerous “learning” opportunities as a new copilot with a variety of captains and their unique personalities.

Prior to becoming the commander of Eureka 747, as a 17-year old high school student, I was scolded one morning in homeroom for reading Fate, but I had a very hard time putting the beautiful work down. The experiences that Gann described provided me an understanding of the airman’s world that I had hopes of becoming a part. So much of my foundation as an aviator came from the fascinating writings of Gann, St. Exupery, Len Morgan, Richard Bach and others gifted with the pen. Their elegant way with words provided me with a deeper appreciation of professional aviation along with some very good advice that has stayed with me throughout my flying career.

Crossing directly over a very busy DFW airport en route to Love Field, I listened with envy to the clipped, professional conversations between controllers and airline pilots. I imagined that one of the laconic southern drawls from a Braniff flight might be one of my heroes, Len Morgan. Oh how I wanted to exist in that world and had since a boy, filled with awe, watching three “Greek gods,” resplendent in their black uniforms with gold stripes, strolling across the ramp at O’Hare. The occasion was my first flight on an airliner, an event in which the TWA 707 would play a part in changing my life forever. Innumerable airliner models and several cardboard aircraft cockpit simulators installed in my tiny bathroom shower stall followed.

Countless hours were spent watching the sky, from the roof of my Texas Panhandle home, turn cloudy with contrails. With the aid of a slightly out of date Official Airline Guide that my mother secured from a travel agent friend, I would try to figure out what line and which flight I might be observing. The moonlit nights spent shivering on that roof are some of my fondest memories.

I didn’t actually know any pilots but I knew that their calling was special and I wanted to become a part of that brotherhood with the sacred responsibility of safely transporting passengers from A to B. But dues were required to be paid before access to that hallowed world called a cockpit would be granted.

Few dreams worth having are achieved with shortcuts and in flying airplanes there is no substitute for experience. The increase in airman wisdom is recorded on paper in logbooks.

More importantly, the experience gained is remembered in your mind and heart, the rewards being increased skill, finesse in the craft, and survival. There were the summer days between high school and college when I began flying charter flights. Memories of waiting on a pasture airstrip where the increasing heat and dying breeze would make getting the Cessna 210 airborne before the barbed wire and incarcerated cows a near-run thing. I recall those perfect West Texas evenings at dusk on a small town airport, with the gentle wind providing my airplane a soothing voice. I heard her stabilizers telling me, “Be patient lad, enjoy this moment, and know that an airliner cockpit awaits.”

There were my early days of instrument flying, where relief replaces tension as emergence from the clouds reveals the airport ahead after an NDB approach in a crosswind. “Double the correction and pull the tail,” I can hear my ex-Navy chief instrument instructor bellow as if he were sitting next to me.

And those special times, in coat and tie, that I warmed the right seat of a corporate turboprop trying to sound grizzled on the radio and desperately attempting to commit no error that would result in not being invited back. The road is long but my youth allowed me continuous enjoyment in the humbling gathering of experience. But I was also completely, unashamedly in love with flying and the world of aviators. A finer coterie of folks I could not imagine and I was immensely grateful for the work that I was provided, bringing me closer to my goal.

Storm
Getting ready for the fight…

Later that summer evening with Eureka 747 westbound from Dallas, a long line of brilliant flashes across my course indicated an uncomfortable meeting would be required to complete my mission. My desire to confront the bully without getting a bloody nose brought to mind Gann’s similar challenge over the Catskills 40 years ago. As a relatively inexperienced copilot, Gann learned much from Captain Ross that evening as he experienced his first bout with a thunderstorm. His wisdom gained that night was on my mind as I entered the clouds and, as Gann, I had no onboard radar and so would be looking for the least dazzling spot to make my way.

I did have a huge edge that night that Gann would have very much envied: a helpful Fort Worth Center controller doing the best he could with his 1976-era radar to provide me a clue of where the worst demons lurked. Captain Ross’s advice to Gann was with me as I lowered my seat all the way to the floor, turned up the instrument lights, pushed the props into low pitch, and slowed to maneuvering speed. While mesmerized by St. Elmo beginning his dance across the windscreen, I could also clearly recall Ross’s comment to Gann: “I think we’re going to take a pasting.”

The first indication that my foe was indeed legitimate was a very smooth but completely uncontrollable climb that was dramatic enough to dispel any thought I may have had of resisting it. Nor did I attempt to utilize the elevator trim to reduce the force on the yoke that held the aircraft more or less level in its heady accumulation of altitude. For I had a very good understanding of what goes up must come down and preferred to offer no assistance to that state when the time came.

The match continued as expected with the fire hose of rain, the turbulence, the lightning, and… the thunder. Gann beautifully describes the difference in the sound of thunder on the ground versus at its source: “…a hellish timpano and you wish you were deaf.” I am afraid but the fear is more of apprehension than terror as I waited to see what jab the brute has yet to throw. Suddenly, as if becoming bored, Eureka 747 was released, spit out actually, from the storm. A beautiful moonlit night, and a newfound respect, was this rookie’s reward as I looked over my shoulder at the cauliflower battlements that had permitted me to pass.

The lights of Lubbock beckoned on the horizon and I felt a sense of humbled accomplishment for performing the work for which Gann and Ross had prepared me. As I shut down the engines in front of the FBO, listening to the gyros winding down, I could hear Ross say to a very weary Gann, “Anyone can do the job when things are going right, in this business we play for keeps.”

Forty-three years and six logbooks later, while enjoying a senior captain’s position with a major airline, those words still resonate with the former commander of Eureka 747.

7 Comments

  • Nice read, Rob. Hey, tell your wife I got sent to the principal’s office one day in high school out of an extremely boring English class after I got caught reading one of her dad’s columns in Flying Magazine. He, too, was a hero of mine. It was worth it then, and it’s even more worth it now… Here’s a fraternal nod at cha.

  • Rob,
    I was lucky enough to share your cockpit years ago as a new co-pilot and as I was reading this, I felt like I was in your right seat again. Nicely done my friend.

  • Rob,
    I remember getting grabbed and sent to the principal’s office in sixth grade for reading an issue of Flying disguised as a history magazine (my teacher was an ex-Marine D.I. and tended to go off at times). I too can well remember Ross and the DC-2, my first reading of Fate must have been at age 10. My uncle knew I would follow him into the fraternity of pilots so he made sure I read it. I also had the pleasure of presenting him with a signed copy of Fate through a connection with someone at Boeing. Gann was the best.

  • Gann would be proud of you. Your story was a worthy “Fate is the Hunter” homage. I, too, read Gann’s works before leaving home for the Air Force. Gonna have to pull them back out again.

  • I love Ernest Gann as much as you do. I read it as a new pilot after finding a copy in our attic at home. I still refer to it today.

    I even wrote to him and told him that he motivated me to earn my commercial ticket.
    He wrote back, saying broadly, “It’s always good to hear from a fellow aviator.”

    Probably canned, but it was his words, his signature. No, the signature was not a fake.

    Every pilot should read this book. Sagely lessons lie within. Too bad the world has little time for sagely reading. I grew up when there was time.

    Too much STEM. Embraced by politicians as a magic bullet to create jobs. Soulless. Ernest Gann is not on the reading list. Such a pity.

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