Novel from king of aviation fiction; The Aviator, by Ernest K. Gann. New York: Arbor House. $10.95.

Ernie Gann is well known to lovers of tales of the air. His classic novels "Fate Is the Hunter" and "The High and the Mighty" -- and the movies made from them -- captured the magic as well as the tragedy of the early days of aviation.

With his new book, "The Aviator," Mr. Gann once again explores this familiar skyscape. In 1928 a pilot is flying the mail between Elko, Nev., and Boise, Idaho. Besides the bulky postal bags he has a passenger, a precocious 11 -year-old girl going to visit her grandparents.

Then, even more than now, this area was desolate waste. The drama is predictable. An engine failure forces the pilot to crash-land or the side of a mountain in a snowstorm. The bulk of the story involves the growing love between man and child and how this inspires them to survive their severe ordeal.

Both the characters are unusual for Gann. John Wayne would never have played the pilot, an introspective person, withdrawn from society because of a badly scarred face. The child is exceptional as well, seeming mature far beyond her years.

In many ways "The Aviator" is reminiscent of Antonie St. Exupery's "Night Flight" Patagonia caught in a storm. Gann cannot match the French lyricism of Exupery, but, in his own way, he does create interesting characters and put them in a suspenseful situation. One only wishes he had developed the characters more fully and painted the story with more detailed brushstro kes.

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