One of the great books about aviation, in my opinion, is Ernest K. Gann's Fate Is The Hunter, first published in 1961. The final chapter is about a flight captained by Gann in a DC-4 from Hawaii to Oakland, Calif. with a stop in Burbank. On that flight Gann and his crew experienced an unusual vibration. Unknown to them, another DC-4 mysteriously crashed on the same day.
Gann went on vacation after the flight and before reporting back to work, bumped into the airline's head of maintenance, a man named Howard, at a Chinese restaurant. The last few paragraphs of the book are one of the best descriptions of the concept of fate in aviation I've ever read. If you have not read this book you should.
From Fate Is The Hunter by Ernest K. Gann, with comments by the editor in brackets::
He approached me slowly and his eyes were so filled with mischief I wondered if he had preceded all of us to the Chinese wine. A hand flew upward in a gesture which might have been made by Sloniger [one of Gann's previous captains and teachers]. The hand executed the beginning of a chandelle and landed lightly on my shoulder.
"Let me touch you," Howard 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."
My embarrassment turned to bewilderment. I didn't know Howard well enough to exchange insults.
He led me to the table. "Please . . ." He pulled out a chair and bowed me into it.
[Howard then explained that an examination of the vibration Gann had reported was "a masterpiece of innocence".]
"Did you know we grounded every DC-4 in the world because of you?" he asked.
"I've been sailing. . ."
"Never giving a thought to vibration, of course."
"Thank you for completing my picture of blessed ignorance." He frowned and his hands fluttered uncertainly. "But I will never understand your nonchalance. Listen to me very carefully. I've spent too much time on this investigation to miss the finale."
It soon became obvious that Howard's detective work had included my personal anticipations. Even what I had said to the crew and passengers had been remembered and considered.
"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.
[Howard explained that unporting could be caused by a missing elevator hinge bolt, like that missing on Gann's DC-4, and cause an uncontrollable nose-dive, if the plane were flown at certain speeds and center of gravity loadings.]
"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."
"The vibration really wasn't very bad."
"It doesn't take much. But let us assume another pilot would have reacted in the same way. It would only have postponed the inevitable. As soon as the time came for a normal power reduction and it was accomplished, importing would begin. But not you. In the past you had lost all four engines so many times, the prospect of losing one gave you relatively little concern. 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," be 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 be 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.
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