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Fate Is the Hunter

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Ernest K. Gann’s classic pilot's memoir is an up-close and thrilling account of the treacherous early days of commercial aviation. “Few writers have ever drawn readers so intimately into the shielded sanctum of the cockpit, and it is hear that Mr. Gann is truly the artist” (The New York Times Book Review).

“A splendid and many-faceted personal memoir that is not only one man’s story but the story, in essence, of all men who fly” (Chicago Tribune). In his inimitable style, Gann brings you right into the cockpit, recounting both the triumphs and terrors of pilots who flew when flying was anything but routine.

416 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1961

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About the author

Ernest K. Gann

65 books81 followers
Ernest K Gann was an aviator, author, filmmaker, sailor, fisherman and conservationist.

After earning his pilot license, Gann spent his 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 position in the movie business. In search of work, he decided to move his family to California. Gann was able to find odd jobs at Burbank Airport, and also began to write short stories. A friend managed to get him a part-time job as a co-pilot with a local airline company and it was there that he flew his first trips as a professional aviator. In the late 1930s many airlines were hiring as many pilots as they could find; after hearing of these opportunities, Gann and his family returned to New York where he managed to get hired by American Airlines to fly the Douglas DC-2 and Douglas DC-3.

For several years Gann enjoyed flying routes in the northeast for American. In 1942, many U.S. airlines' pilots and aircraft were absorbed into the Air Transport Command of the U.S. Army Air Forces to assist in 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 trips took him across the North Atlantic to Europe, and then on 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. In 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 back to their airlines. Gann decided to leave American Airlines in search of new adventures. He was quickly hired as a pilot with a new company called Matson Airlines that was a venture of the Matson steamship line. He flew from the U.S. West Coast across the Pacific to Honolulu. This experience spawned ideas that were developed into one of his best-known works, 'The High and the Mighty.' Matson ultimately soon fell prey to the politically well-connected Pan American Airlines and failed. After a few more short-lived flying jobs, Gann became discouraged with aviation and he turned to writing as a full-time occupation.

Gann's major works include the novel The High and the Mighty and his aviation focused, near-autobiography Fate Is the Hunter. Notes and short stories scribbled down during long layovers on his pioneering trips 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. In 1978, he published his comprehensive autobiography, entitled A Hostage to Fortune.

Although many of his 21 best-selling novels show Gann’s devotion to aviation, others, including Twilight for the Gods, and Fiddler's Green reflect 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 called 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 film 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 film played repeatedly on television for years afterward.) He wrote the story for the television miniseries Masada, based on 'The Antagonists.'

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 237 reviews
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,989 reviews14 followers
April 22, 2015

Description: Ernest K. Gann’s classic memoir is an up-close and thrilling account of the treacherous early days of commercial aviation. In his inimitable style, Gann brings you right into the cockpit, recounting both the triumphs and terrors of pilots who flew when flying was anything but routine.


Fate and destiny are bottom line answers to every precarious situation in Gann's near-autobiography and philosophically speaking, that really ain't my bag. Apart from that, it is a white-knuckle ride through the early days of commercial airlines.

The 'why me' and 'lucked-out's became palling.

Profile Image for Andreas.
Author 2 books27 followers
March 2, 2013
For aviators, this is the ultimate, classic memoir. Ernest Gann started flying in the late thirties, flew transport planes all over the world during WWII, and continued flying for airlines thereafter. This book is part chronicle of his many adventures and misadventures, part collection of thoughts on life and flying.

Even a pilot with my limited experience can immediately discern the fundamental authenticity in the erudite voice of this true aviator. The book is episodic, with sequential periods and incidents within serving to move Gann’s destiny forward. Gann writes elegantly, peppering his oftentimes long whimsical tangents with razor sharp understatement. Technical matters become uncomplicated as they are reduced to how they really concern the pilot and his mental state. The essence of what it feels like to fly, in clear skies, in storms and in pouring rain, in Arctic winter and Saharan oven and Amazon jungle, is eloquently explained and examined, with an eye for that poetic and magnificent experience that truly attracts pilots towards flight.

Quite a magnificent book for pilots, and one that will hold the interest of others as well.

Profile Image for Jeff.
237 reviews4 followers
January 6, 2015
Really good book, written in 1961, about the early days of flying. Starts out in DC2s and DC3s, flying mail routes and other similar tasks, then moved to doing flights for the military as WWII began to unfold. He doesn't make a real big deal about it, but the author really lost a LOT of friends to airplanes over the years, and he had some close calls but was able to out-distance "fate" at each juncture. I can especially relate to his speaking of the insatiable appetite of a pilot to look skyward whenever we hear an airplane, or to stand there looking at the runway as a plane takes off, until it finally disappears into the distance...

No plot, no apparent agenda, just enjoyable reading about airplanes, flying, and pilots, from a pilot that grew up as our aviation industry was in its infancy.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,630 reviews329 followers
December 7, 2021
To my surprise, I bogged down early in this classic pilot's memoir. The man just couldn't write! It didn't help that my library copy was heavily underlined by some Yahoo vandal. But, basically, I just couldn't bring myself to care about much of anything, up to the point I quit (@~ 25%). Cliche, cliche, cliche. Maybe it gets better further in? Well, I'll never know, and my bookshelf brimmeth over with stuff that's a LOT more attractive than this turkey.

Author: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_..., 1910 - 1991. "Gann's classic memoir of early commercial aviation, "Fate Is the Hunter", is still in print today and considered by many one of the greatest aviation books ever written." Which is why I tried to read it. Didn't work for me. And I like aviation memoirs!
Profile Image for Paul.
904 reviews38 followers
December 8, 2021
Actual rating: 3.5 stars.

A fascinating near-autobiography by an airline pilot who flew from the late 1930s into the 1950s, the era of DC-2s, DC-3s, C-87s, and DC-4s. Gann has some great stories to share, many quite frightening, some of which will have you gripping the edges of the book like a control yoke, knuckles white. My god, those were dangerous days, and the early airline pilots took risks that would be inconceivable today, letting down through solid weather with inaccurate altimeter settings until as low as fifty feet above the ground or ocean, trying to establish visual contact with the surface; flying into thunderstorms and icing conditions; pressing fuel minimums beyond the point of no return, and reading Gann's litany of departed airline pioneers -- men who died, one after another, usually a microsecond before their trusting passengers -- is a bit like standing inside the cleft of the Vietnam War Memorial, thinking "my god, all those names!"

This is not merely a history of the airline industry's early days, it is also a history of the US Army Air Corps' transport command, set up in the early days of WWII, and the establishment of trans-Atlantic routes and refueling stops; a history of American airline involvement in Central and South America; and a lengthy treatise on the airline seniority system.

Why call it a near-autobiography? Because Gann changes the names of the departed, and steadfastly refuses to name any of the airlines involved, including his own. Who, after all these years, does he think he's protecting? It is typical of airline pilots never to slight their own organizations, I suppose, and Gann is no exception.

Why not four stars? Because this is a very wordy book, and I found myself skimming over some philosophical and repetitious paragraphs, trying to skip ahead to pick up the thread of a story. The book is essentially a sting of "there I was" stories, and they're all fascinating -- but you have to wade through thigh-deep "there but for the grace of god" moralizing to get to the outcomes. Some of Gann's musings are vital to the book, however, and you have to be careful not to skip over those. At the heart of this book is a dissertation on fate, the fickleness thereof. Why did Gann survive this thunderstorm when so-and-so, a vastly more experienced pilot, died under identical circumstances? Why did Gann's engines keep running when, after he landed, ground crews found the tanks bone dry?

I'm an aviator, but my experience is in military fighters, not the airlines. Still, I'm fascinated by the story of aviation's development in the US and the world, and this book is an insider's take on it, told from the left seat -- despite skimming over a few wordy paragraphs, I couldn't put it down.
Profile Image for Laura JC.
222 reviews
February 11, 2020
This book and Gann's "A Hostage to Fortune" were among those on my late father's bookshelf for decades. I kept them to read myself, to see the kind of book he enjoyed. Dad was a pilot, beginning before WWII, flying transport in Europe-Africa-India during the war, later bush-piloting along the BC coast and Canadian Arctic (his favourite years), then as senior pilot with an international company, moving from Otters, Beavers and a DC-3 to a Hawker Siddeley 125 business jet. These books by Ernest Gann must have been good reads for my father. (He received this book as a gift. The inscription on the flyleaf reads: "Ross, Hope you will enjoy this as we did. Thanks for a grand trip to Magas May 1961, Harry T. Miller [LAX?].")
The writing is detailed and well put together - and what an incredible memory Gann had! He writes honestly and self-deprecatingly about his many experiences. This book is about his years as a commercial pilot.
I won't rate this book, since I did not read the entire thing, rather, I skipped through it.
(I'll repeat much of this review on the other book's page.)
Profile Image for John Behle.
215 reviews28 followers
July 22, 2017
1967. I had just turned 11 and my dad dared me to read this book. He tossed me the paperback edition stating I was ready for grown up books. I found out I liked it, even understanding the theme of luck and fatalism. I turned it into an A+ book report in front of class.

Now, just 50 years later, I bought the hardcover first edition at a used book store--hey, I was going to to this up right. I delved into the still remembered pages and the wonder came flooding back. While being an aviation enthusiast helps a little, anyone can enjoy the wordsmith skill and eagle eyed observational talent of Ernest Gann.

The canvas Gann paints on is his learning to be an airline pilot in the 1930's. He later flew cargo in WWII in all theaters. Afterward, he was one of the lead crews staking out the California to Hawaii airline routes for Matson Navigation Company.

To be sure, there is fate hunting on nearly every page. Airline flying with twin radial, non- pressurized, DC-3s was hazardous. Radio communication and navigational aids were primitive. Weather reporting was sketchy and subjective. As Gann continually points out, crews were so often left to their own visual acuity and experience...or... just a hunch and luck. One of his cherished lines from this book sums it up: "Rulebooks are paper-they will not cushion the sudden meeting of stone and metal."

So...here is to Dad, thanks for that challenge and recommendation a half century ago. Gann left airlines in 1960 and reinvented himself as a blue-water sailboat buff. His telling of that part of his life is also a true life action yarn, The Song of the Sirens, released in 1968.

I have tried to like, to no avail, his several fiction works.
Profile Image for Matt Lavine.
1 review
July 27, 2008
Fate Is The Hunter is not a war story or a spy book, it is, instead, a story of fate and how it can start careers, and end lives, but most importantly, this is a true story of life and death. The detail and emotion Gann wrote on these pages is astounding and you must take time to read each word and try to imagine the scene in your mind and feel the emotion. The book starts with Gann when he is first learning to fly DC-3s and DC-2s in the early 1900s. Throughout the book, he tells of his adventures in first person from inside the cockpit of his airplane. Although those who do not know much about aviation may not understand the suttle complexity of flying an old DC-3 or DC-2, they can still be gripped by the emotions Gann pours into his writing when he learns that one of his friends had just crashed into a mountain or simply fell to their death from three-thousand feet. By the end of the book almost every one of his friends has crashed or died. After many times of believing this is the end or I am going to die here, Gann finnaly knew enough was enough and decided to start writing his experiences on paper, therefore writing Fate Is The Hunter.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Michael Flanagan.
494 reviews22 followers
August 6, 2012
This book returns the reader back to the golden pioneering days of Commercial airlines and all the danger and adventure that of the period. Fate is a game of numbers and luck and the author takes us on his ride with fate with all it's ups and downs. Anyone with a passing interest in flying needs to read this book you will not be disappointed.
Profile Image for Ally Ports.
15 reviews1 follower
October 10, 2013
Amazing tales of one of the first commercial pilots. As a pilot myself I was spellbound but I am pretty sure even a novice would fall head first into the exhilaration adventures as time passes across World War II and the first people of the sky open up the world and discover new frontiers.
Profile Image for Cliff Ward.
129 reviews3 followers
December 2, 2020
Written in 1961, Ernest Gann invites the reader to travel alongside him in the cramped cockpit of those early 1930's aeroplanes right through WW2 flying as a transport pilot and into the competitive commercial airline age of the 1950.
The book recounts crash after crash and the many sudden deaths of his comrades, often occurring at the least expected moment or after another recent near miss. Gann says we must believe in our own personal fortune and destiny in order to have any chance of survival. Fate itself is indeed the hunter and when it is ready to take us it certainly will.
Many of Gann's close meetings with fate involve technical issues with those 1930s propellor planes such as the DC3 or aircraft converted from use in WW2. They took a light body of a fuselage, hammered down some engines, and away it went. On many occasions it wasn't until a disaster had taken many lives that a technical fault was realized or a procedural function modified. Their engines flew into icy clouds and froze up, there odometers misread, their planes were mis-loaded or just not maintained. Of the many who flew there were many victims and only fate could decide who would survive.
Profile Image for Aidan Garcia.
Author 1 book
January 21, 2023
An excellent writer and pilot, I was transfixed from start to end reading about the adventures and misadventures of Gann. He is able to verbalize some “piloty things” that I hadn’t really been able to express and so I thank him for that.

What a time in aviation history. Much respect, but I am thankful for the technology of 2023.
Profile Image for Rick.
166 reviews3 followers
June 16, 2020
Phenomenal collection of stories from the early days of airline and ocean flying.

Part of me wishes I had the experience to write something like this, most of me is very happy I don't.
Profile Image for Warren.
147 reviews
September 26, 2022
The early years of aviation written by a gentleman with great humor and an earned knowledge of aviation. The title is appropriate; the aviation experiences Mr Gann tells of prove that. His use of humor adds to the stories but also draws them out. I recommend anyone with aviation experience read the book. You will appreciate the “trailblazers’” bravery and skill.
Profile Image for Bernardo.
Author 1 book20 followers
October 1, 2018
We now take flights for granted. But it wasn’t always this easy to hop on a plane and, hours later, land somewhere else. This book tells the story of an interesting point in aviation’s history, when technology had advanced enough but still dangerous. A worthy book, filled with technical details explained with simple, easy-to-read and entertaining.
Profile Image for Laurent.
126 reviews2 followers
November 10, 2013
A piece of literature, in disguise as a aviation book

Who'd of ever thought that a pilot and the overall field of aviation could be written about with such eloquence, beauty and vividness. Since I was a child, I've been an aviation enthusiast so Gann's book which spans both pre and post-WWII aviation is exactly the kind of novel I love.

For me, a couple of lessons were particularly poignant from Gann's descriptions of early commercial aviation. His descriptions of being a terrified and bullied co-pilot, who was expected to be a slave, shut up and know nothing (and especially never question the Captain) is very interesting and relevant and make me realise how much aviation has progressed an learned about crew resource management, particularly in light of the 1977 Tenerife disaster.

On a personal level I found the following description of flying with Hughen (pp87 to 89) quite interesting:

I wonder if Hughen is one of those pilots secretly afraid of airplanes. There area very few such men, anxiously nursing their dread until the day they can retire. Experience had worn them out instead of gardening them. They exist in a half-frightened daze, like punch-drink fighters, and everyone I'd dirty fir them.

And I really had no idea that even in the 1950s flight was such a hazardous undertaking even post-war, e.g. page 352.

If you're at all interested in aviation, you're sure to like this book and I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Alice.
Author 35 books42 followers
January 12, 2019
I'd read some of Gann's aviation fiction long ago, but I had no idea he was himself an airline pilot. His account of flying crosscountry in the interwar US, transporters in the war and international flights afterwards reminded me in its lyricism and great love of the sky of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, but with more jokes. His account of the search and rescue operation for a pilot downed in the vastness of the Arctic is one of the most thrilling things I've ever read.
1 review
December 25, 2014
This book helped me decide to become an airline pilot. Any professional pilot will feel right at home with Gann in the cockpit. He starts out as a new hire First Officer for American Airlines, learning the ropes on the DC2 and DC3. It is fascinating to experience the working conditions of that era, and make us realize how much we owe to those pioneers, and how much technology has made air travel so safe and reliable today. And while so much has changed, there are still human elements that remain the same, the dynamics of working in close quarters with a wildly diverse group of pilots. Any pilot who has gone through new hire training will see that some things haven't changed at all. As I have moved up the ranks through the years, I have reread this book, each time with a different perspective. Great stories, great writing. Several movies were made from different parts of this book.
Profile Image for Garrett.
13 reviews
February 24, 2017
Perhaps, as an amateur pilot, I'm biased towards this sort of thing, but my appreciation of this goes well beyond enthusiasm about the genre. Not only is this the finest aviation memoir I've run across, it's literature masquerading as a memoir. I've read this a few times now, and every time reading it through is different: the first time, I was enthralled by the narrative of the stories, and was so anxious to find out what happened that I blew through the beautifully constructed sentences and the vocabulary that sends most of us running for our dictionaries. I caught that the second time, but I was so interested in the style that I managed to miss the overarching theme of the book - that fate hunts all of us, regardless of our circumstances - until the next time that I read it.

This book is a gem, and the experience of reading it improves after being read more than once.
Profile Image for Steve Shilstone.
Author 14 books24 followers
June 24, 2019
Aviation memoir of commercial airline pilot from mid-1930s through mid-1950s. Extreme focus on dangerous situations and eccentricities of various aircraft. All aspects of life separate from flying ignored completely.
48 reviews
December 30, 2020
I could not get interested in this book and put down after a few chapters
23 reviews
May 31, 2019
Just one of the best aviation books I've ever read. Drawing a line through history from the early days of passenger flying through the incredible developments of the 2nd WW, this extraordinary history explains how we found our about magnetic deviation, about the existence of jetstreams, about astro-navigation and about the building of the trade routes that still exist today. An epic tale that should be read by anyone with an interest in aviation and adventuring.
Profile Image for Charles Moore.
257 reviews2 followers
August 16, 2020
This is an oldie but goodie. Gann's autobiographical life in the air is filled with those close misses that those of who fly, on occasion, worry about. Basically his life of flying starts in the late Great Depression and ends somewhere just after the Korean War. If you like the idea of fate (versus God) always lurking around the corner for you (or one of your characters, if you write) then this is as good a lesson as you'll get. If you tend to want to defy fate, this is a good immersion into the role of luck, fate, smarts, daring, etc.

But, I'm still one of those people who is not 100% comfortable in an aluminum tube shrieking through the night at some major gathering of other aluminum tubes. I've flown enough small craft to be scared and marveled and enjoy the view and then throw up!

I will always remember writing a creative-non fiction piece for class 25 years ago about TWA Flight 400 that blew up over Long Island Sound. Fate. And if you don't like Gann's attitude, read Julius Caesar by Shakespeare.

It's a wonder Ernest Gann lived through it all.
Profile Image for Lee J.
14 reviews9 followers
July 10, 2020
The best book on flying that I've read. Nicely written too.
16 reviews
January 8, 2015
"I'll teach you how to escape death.
...there is a raven in the eastern sea which is called Yitai ("dull-head"). This dull-head cannot fly very high and seems very stupid. It hops only a short distance and nestles close with others of its kind. In going forward, it dare not lag behind. At the time of feeding, it takes what is left over by the other birds. Therefore, the ranks of this bird are never depleted and nobody can do them any harm. A tree with a straight trunk is the first to be chopped down. A well with sweet water is the first to be drawn dry."

- TAIKUNG JEN, in a conversation with Confucius, and included before the preface of Fate is the Hunter

Gann’s vivid prose and spectacular adventures make for an exhilarating and immersive experience. The book recounts his growth from a nervous novice to a seasoned, and extremely lucky, veteran. His growth is then overshadowed by the explosive growth of aviation during that era, reshaped from a swashbuckling, dangerous, and visionary vocation to a more commercialized and bureaucratized one. Gann mentions that aviation loses much of its pioneering spirit in the transformation. His adventures and misadventures are chronicled in numerous episodes, ranging from search and rescues in North America to flying the notorious Hump of the Himalayas. His musings on beauty (the humbling vistas of the earth, the fine jewels of the night sky, the fateful personalities of the airplanes, the memorable demeanours and actions of the men) and introspection (the unpretentiousness of true courage, the loneliness and creativity that comes with nonconformity) further enrich the novel. The entire novel, along with its epilogue’s haunting reflections on the fickleness of fate, is narrated with a balance of humility and pride that befits the eponymous theme.

"I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."

- Ecclesiastes
Profile Image for Paul.
33 reviews
November 10, 2014
I enjoyed reading Fate is the Hunter and would recommend it to aviation enthusiasts. Its appeal, however, may be limited to that group which has a strong interest in a niche of aviation history from the viewpoint of a personal memoir. It was published in 1961 and now reads like a period piece. The author's viewpoint and rich vocabulary are highly reflective of a different generation. For me, that was part of the appeal, reading about those times of an earlier era of air transport from a man who lived them. Gann started his flying career sometime in the 1930's and flew as an airline pilot from the late 1930s into the 1950s, at least. He also spent the years of WW2 flying air transport missions around the globe as a civilian, but on military support operations. What I did occasionally find frustrating in the book was his lack of certain specifics in many cases, while still describing many details of some flight experiences in great detail. What this often meant was that he does not give dates of events. That may sometimes be a minor detail, but to me it lends some authenticity to know exactly when something occurred. He also never states the names of the specific companies he flies for. In general, though, he illustrates with great detail some of the harrowing experiences he had over many thousands of hours in the air and his many close brushes with disaster. I can see how, when this book came out, it was a new approach to writing about something which was still exotic and rare, unlike the crowded bus-like experience flying on airlines often is these days.
Profile Image for Brian.
27 reviews1 follower
March 19, 2012
Wow! As I sat, rapidly thumbing through the pages in my spare time, I was awestruck from the first to the last page. I love historical books and, as a pilot, historical aviation books are especially delightful. Capt Gann paints a masterful picture of the dangerous days of early aviation and of the mysterious force, fate, that keeps excellent young aviators from long careers, while older, equally capable men live on by staying a fingernails length away from death's grasp. The recounted events are harrowing, heartbreaking, mystifying and eerie. You don't need to be a pilot to appreciate "Fate is the Hunter," or have an aviation background, as this book only uses the backdrop of aviation to discuss the deeper question of "why" in so many deaths. Is it always genetics, or lack of education, or misjudgements that lead to ones death? Or could luck play a large part? Capt Gann makes a plausible case for the later explanation throughout this incredible work. A definite must read for those that like historical works as well as aviation enthusiasts and those that believe in the unexplainable.
Profile Image for Kiri.
679 reviews40 followers
December 27, 2022
Wow, Gann is a master storyteller! What a pleasure to be swept up by his words. He spins out several stories from his experiences as an airline pilot, from trainee to captain. He was also involved in some civilian pilot work during WWII (I had no idea we had this particular program! Greenland?!). It seems that most good pilot stories are also detective stories, and it is entrancing to watch Gann encounter challenges, sort through the possible problems, deduce explanations, find solutions, and scrape through. Because he was a pilot who lived to write this book. And that's probably the part of the book that leaves the strongest impression, a thread of speculation woven throughout: what separates those who live and those who die? Gann honors and wishes he could favor the role of skill and experience, but he can't help but despair a little at the role of random bad luck. Sobering and gripping.
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