Ernest Kellogg Gann (October 13, 1910 – December 19, 1991) was an American aviator, author, sailor, and conservationist.
Gann was born in Lincoln, Nebraska to a prosperous Midwestern family; his father was an executive with General Telephone and Telegraph in Lincoln, Nebraska; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Chicago, Illinois. Rebelling against his father's strong desire that he seek a career with the telephone business, Ernest pursued several other interests as he matured. He was fascinated by topics including photography, movie-making, and aviation. As a young man, he showed little interest in school and performed poorly. His parents decided that he needed discipline and that he should attend a military school. He was sent to the Culver Military Academy (now Culver Academies) for his high school years. Despite many misadventures and struggles with the harsh academic environment and strict rules at Culver, he graduated at age 19 in 1930. He elected to pursue filmmaking, and matriculated with the Yale School of Drama. After his studies at Yale, Gann worked in New York City at Radio City Music Hall as a projectionist and later as a commercial movie cartoonist.
On September 18, 1933, Gann married Eleanor Helen Michaud in Chicago, Illinois. They had three children: George Kellogg Gann, (November 12, 1935); Polly Wing Gann; and Steven Anthony Gann (March 4, 1941).
A chance encounter gained Gann a job with The March of Time, a documentary movie series associated with Time magazine. While working on the feature Inside Nazi Germany in 1936, Gann narrowly escaped Hitler's troops as they marched into the Rhineland. Returning to New York, he relocated his family to a new home in Rockland County where the lure of a local airport, Christie Brothers in Congers, New York, rekindled his interest with aviation. He purchased a half partnership in a Stinson Reliant (gullwing) aircraft with actor Burgess Meredith, obtained his pilot license, and soon became an accomplished aviator.
After earning his pilot certificate, Gann spent much of his free time aloft, flying for pleasure. The continuing Great Depression soon cost him his job and he was unable to find another job in the movie business. In search of work, he decided to relocate his family to California. He took odd jobs and flight instructed at Burbank and nearby airports and began to write short stories. A friend got him a part-time job as a co-pilot with a local airline and it was there that he flew his first trips as a professional aviator. During the late 1930s many airlines were hiring as many pilots as they could find; after learning of these opportunities, Gann moved his family back to New York where he was hired by American Airlines to fly Douglas DC-2 and Douglas DC-3 aircraft.
For several years Gann flew routes in the northeast for American. During 1942, many U.S. airlines' pilots and aircraft were absorbed into the Air Transport Command of the United States Army Air Forces to assist with the war effort. Gann and many of his co-workers at American volunteered to join the group. He flew DC-3s, Douglas DC-4s and Consolidated C-87 Liberator Express transports (the cargo version of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber). His wartime flights took him across the North Atlantic to Europe, and thence to Africa, South America, India, and other exotic places. Some of his most harrowing experiences came while flying The Hump airlift across the Himalayas into China. During the years to come Gann's worldwide travels and various adventures would become the inspiration for many of his novels and screenplays.
At the end of World War II, the Air Transport Command released the civilian pilots and aircraft to their airlines. Gann decided to quit American Airlines in search of new adventures. He was hired as a pilot with a new company called Matson Airlines, a venture of the Matson steamship line. He flew from the US west coast across the Pacific to Honolulu. This experience created ideas that were developed into one of his best-known works, The High and the Mighty. Matson ultimately became a victim of the politically well-connected Pan American Airlines, and ceased operations. After a few more short-lived flying jobs, Gann became discouraged with aviation and began writing as a full-time occupation.
During his tenure with Matson, Gann moved his family to the San Francisco area, and it was there that he began writing professionally. In his autobiography he describes cycles of "boom and bust" as he would earn seemingly vast sums of money for a book or an article, spend wildly, and then suffer for long periods with little or no income. He attempted other types of work, such as fishing, but always resumed writing. Gann began to dislike the difficult and tedious routine of family life, missing the adventures and freedoms of his previous career. His marriage began to suffer and Eleanor eventually decided to divorce Gann. She was afflicted with numerous health problems, including severe rheumatoid arthritis, and following several years of declining health, she died on December 23, 1966 at Pebble Beach, California. Gann would endure several more tragedies in his personal life, including the death of his eldest son in 1973; while working on an oil tanker in the Gulf of Alaska, George was swept overboard in a storm.
Gann had a lifelong love of sailing. He made many friends in the nautical community in and around San Francisco and, when money was scarce for him, tried a few different jobs, mainly in the commercial fishing industry. He owned several boats of various types and sizes during his lifetime. Eventually, after years of planning and preparations, Gann purchased a large metal sailboat in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, which he christened Albatross. Along with his family and a few friends he sailed the boat across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Panama Canal to San Francisco Bay. Albatross was overhauled and Gann then sailed it around the South Pacific Ocean. He later leased the ship to a movie company to be used as the major prop in a movie based upon his book Twilight for the Gods. Soon after the production ended, Albatross was sold and became a school vessel. It was later lost in the Gulf of Mexico. (Its sinking is the topic of a 1996 movie named White Squall.)
As his family life deteriorated, Gann began spending time with a friend, Dodie Post, whom he later married. Both before and after they were married they were partners in adventure, travel, and later, environmental causes. In 1966 they purchased an 800-acre (324 ha) ranch on San Juan Island in the state of Washington. This was the beginning of his next great passion, environmental conservation. For that purpose, they later donated the bulk of their ranch to the San Juan Preservation Trust.
Gann converted a chicken coop near their ranch house into a writing office. After his death, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) moved the entire coop and its furnishings, including the barber's chair Gann used at his desk, to the EAA Aviation Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where it is on public display.
During the autumn of 1991, Gann again took to the skies to mark the 50th anniversary of his promotion to Captain for American Airlines; it would be his last flight. On December 19, 1991, Gann died in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington, at the age of 81 after suffering kidney problems for some time.
Gann described his writing methods as torturous; he would often literally chain himself to his desk until he finished a certain amount of text. He suffered long periods of writer's block, and frequently worried that he would run out of ideas. Despite his successful career, he continued to have strong feelings of self-doubt and often expressed surprise at the critical praise he received.
Gann's major works include the novel The High and the Mighty and his aviation memoir Fate Is the Hunter (regarded by many as one of the best-ever books about aviation). Notes and short stories scribbled during long layovers on his journeys across the North Atlantic became the source for his first serious fiction novel, Island in the Sky (1944), which was inspired by an actual Arctic rescue mission. It became an immediate best-seller as did Blaze of Noon (1946), a story about early air mail operations. During 1978, he published his comprehensive autobiography, entitled A Hostage to Fortune.
Although many of his 21 best-selling novels reveal Gann's devotion to aviation, others, including Twilight for the Gods, and Fiddler's Green display his love of the sea. His experiences as a fisherman, skipper and sailor, all contributed storylines and depth to his nautical fiction. He later wrote an autobiography of his sailing life named Song of the Sirens.
Gann wrote, or adapted from his books, the stories and screenplays for several movies and television shows. For some of these productions he also served as a consultant and technical adviser during filming. Although it received positive reviews, Gann was displeased with the movie version of Fate Is the Hunter, and removed his name from the credits. (He later lamented that this decision cost him a "fortune" in royalties, as the movie played repeatedly on television for years afterward.) He wrote the story for the television miniseries Masada, based on The Antagonists, and the story for the 1980 Walt Disney movie, The Last Flight of Noah's Ark.
Gann was a member or honorary member of the Society of Flight Test Engineers, Order of Daedalions, Black Birds, OX-5 Aviation Pioneers, Secret Order of Quiet Birdmen, Colgate President's Club, Washington Athletic Club, Grey Eagles Club, 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, Retired Eastern Pilots Association, and American Fighter Pilots Association.
Washington Governor Gary Locke posthumously awarded the Medal of Merit (the state's highest honor) to Gann on July 9, 2003. A cafe in Friday Harbor, Washington is named "Ernie's Cafe" in his honor.
Flying magazine ranked Gann thirty-fourth in its 2013 list of the 51 heroes of aviation.
Books and novels
- Sky Roads. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company 1940 Non Fiction
- All American Aircraft 1941 Non Fiction
- Getting Them Into The Blue 1942 Non Fiction
- Island in the Sky. New York: Viking, 1944
- Blaze of Noon. New York: Holt, 1946
- Benjamin Lawless. Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York: Sloane, 1948
- Fiddler's Green. Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York: Sloane, 1950
- The High and the Mighty. Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York: Sloane, 1952
- Soldier of Fortune. Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York: Sloane, 1954
- Trouble with Lazy Ethel. Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York: Sloane, 1957
- Twilight for the Gods. Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York: Sloane, 1958
- Fate Is the Hunter. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961
- Of Good and Evil. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963
- In the Company of Eagles. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966
- The Song of the Sirens. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968
- The Antagonists. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971
- Band of Brothers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973
- Ernest K. Gann's Flying Circus, Macmillan, 1974
- A Hostage to Fortune (autobiography). New York: Knopf, 1978
- Brain 2000. New York: Doubleday, 1980
- The Aviator. Farmington Hills, Michigan: GK Hall, 1981
- The Magistrate: A Novel. Westminster, Maryland: Arbor House, 1982
- Gentlemen of Adventure. Westminster, Maryland: Arbor House, 1983
- The Triumph: A Novel. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986
- The Bad Angel. Westminster, Maryland: Arbor House, 1987
- The Black Watch: The Men Who Fly America's Secret Spy Planes. New York: Random House, 1989
Gann contributed numerous articles to the aviation magazine Flying. In one series he described his exotic travels with Dodie in their Cessna 310, the Noon Balloon, so named because of its typical late departure time.
Film writing credits
- Blaze of Noon (1947) (novel)
- The Raging Tide (1951) (also novel Fiddler's Green)
- Island in the Sky (1953) (technical advisor, also novel)
- Our Girl Friday (1953) (novel)
- The High and the Mighty (1954) (also novel)
- Soldier of Fortune (1955) (also novel)
- Twilight for the Gods (1958) (also novel)
- Fate Is the Hunter (1964) (book)
- The Last Flight of Noah's Ark (1980) (story)
- Masada (1981) (TV miniseries story: The Antagonists)
- The Aviator (1985) (book)