After 18 Best-Sellers, the High and Mighty Ernest Gann Soars Again with 'the Aviator'

updated 06/15/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/15/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In the converted chicken coop that serves as his office, Ernest Gann is surrounded by memories. There is Ace Flyer Gann, leaning against an old biplane in goggles and white scarf, while nearby hangs a shot of Seafarer Gann at the tiller of a craft. There are photos of Gann the Hollywood screenwriter (one shows him playing chess with old chum John Wayne), Gann the commercial airline pilot and even Gann the newsreel cameraman. Dominating all the mementos, however, is a framed quotation by Winston Churchill which Gann says reminds him of his most daring profession—being an author. Said Churchill: "Writing a book was an adventure. To begin with it was a toy...then it became a mistress, and then a master, and then a tyrant, and in the last phase, when you are reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster."

At 70, Gann is indeed a literary dragon slayer. Of his 21 books (like the notches in a gunslinger's six-shooter, each title is stamped on Gann's 1950 Olivetti), 18 have been best-sellers. Among them: Fate Is the Hunter, Soldier of Fortune, The High and the Mighty and The Antagonists, which served as the basis for last April's ABC miniseries Masada. Now climbing the list is Gann's The Aviator (Arbor House, $10.95). Set in 1928, it deals with a taciturn airmail pilot who crash-lands in the Rockies, seriously injuring his only passenger, a precocious 11-year-old girl. As the snows mount, survival depends on the growing friendship of these two unlikely mates. "My books are pretty sentimental," concedes Gann, "but I'm a sentimental guy. I'd like to think that not everything is as sour and hopelessly sophisticated as some believe." Besides, he continues, "I can't write graphic sex to save my neck."

A self-described son of the heartland ("I'm a real flag-waver"), Ernest Kellogg Gann was born and raised in Lincoln, Nebr. His father, a prosperous telephone company executive who later helped found Northwest Airlines, planned a securely grounded corporate career for Ernest, but he was too restless to comply. After a full assortment of public and parochial schools, Gann opted for the strictures of Culver Military Academy in Indiana. "It was a prison then," he shudders, "but I give the place credit for any success I've had since. Culver taught me humility, and that I wasn't the only pebble on the beach."

Anxious to test his wings after Culver, Gann went East and enrolled in the Yale Drama School. He dropped out two years later and headed for Broadway to direct the Great American Play. Instead, he wound up directing screen tests for Hollywood hopefuls. There was also a new passion in his life—flying. "It totally captivated me," he recalls. "I thought, 'Gee whiz, a man is his own boss up here. He only has to answer to God.' That's still true today."

His early flying partners, Burgess Meredith and dancer Paul Draper, soon dropped out of the sky to concentrate on their stage careers, but Gann was hooked. He barnstormed around the Northeast until American Airlines hired him as a pilot in 1938. When World War II broke out, he began hopping all over the globe for the Air Transport Command. While other fliers spent off-hours drinking and card-playing, Gann scribbled stories of his experiences. The first of these described the difficult rescue of a downed plane in the Arctic. Published in 1944, Island in the Sky was an instant best-seller, and Gann was aloft as an author.

A three-year commercial fishing venture after the war led to the novel Fiddler's Green, but then Gann rejoined American. He quit in 1954, ostensibly to write full-time. But after logging 20,000 hours in the air, he also wanted to get away from the unending hazards he courted as a commercial pilot. On one occasion, Gann found himself over the Pacific with four crippled engines, and another time he narrowly missed crashing into the Taj Mahal.

Despite the risks, Gann still loves to fly. He took a 70,000-foot-high spin in a U-2 spy plane last year, and has even winged through the simulated Apollo training program. Equally enamored of the sea, Gann has owned 21 boats, from a triple-masted schooner to a Dutch steel-hulled brigantine to his newly refitted tug, The Sea Puss.

On terra firma, Gann spends most of his time at Red Mill Farm, his 800-acre spread on San Juan Island in Washington's Puget Sound. He and second wife Dodie (Gann's first marriage produced three children and ended in divorce) moved there in 1966 after spotting the land in a small plane. Today it is a working grain farm, amply stocked with cattle and five horses, including Gann's Arabian stallion, Masada.

Requiring only a few hours sleep a night, Gann manages to write every morning in his coop, quitting promptly at 12:30. He is now working on a courtroom novel called The Magistrate. After 36 years and more than $3 million in earnings, the author is perfecting a new art—his seascapes have fetched as much as $2,500. Still, it is unlikely Gann would ever abandon books. "Writing is very difficult," he allows, "but I'm not happy without it. I guess it's the only justification I can think of for being on this planet."

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