Defense Media Network

Newest Defense Media Network Promotion

High Flight: The Most Famous Aviation Poem Is Born

“An aeroplane is not to us a weapon of war, but a flash of silver slanting the skies; the hum of a deep voiced motor; a feeling of dizziness; it is speed and ecstasy.”

– Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., author of High Flight, in a letter to his parents

On Aug. 18, 1941, Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., of No. 53 Operational Training Unit, Royal Canadian Air Force, climbed into a Spitfire for a test flight. With its unique elliptical wings and legendary Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the nimble Spitfire is arguably the most storied and beautifully designed fighter to come out of World War II. As he flew the fighter through a series of combat maneuvers, Magee experienced a euphoria that typically grips pilots as they put their high performance airplanes through their paces. But, unlike other pilots who after landing walk away thrilled to the point of being speechless, Magee, an accomplished poet, began translating his joyful experience into words on a piece of paper while still airborne. On Sept. 3, 1941, in a letter to his parents he wrote, “I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed. I thought it might interest you.” That verse was the sonnet High Flight, the most famous poem to emerge from World War II.

Born in Shanghai, China in 1922, Magee was the eldest of four boys born to American and English missionaries John and Faith Magee. The young Magee’s poetry talent was officially recognized in 1938 when he received the poetry prize from Rugby School, an English boarding school he was attending. The Magee family was visiting relatives in the United States in 1939 when war broke out in Europe. Unable to return to England, the younger Magee completed his high school education in the States. In 1940 he was offered a scholarship at Yale, where his father was chaplain. Instead, young Magee enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. After earning his wings in June 1941, Pilot Officer Magee was assigned to No. 53 Operational Training Unit in Britain for Spitfire training, where he wrote High Flight. Upon qualifying in the fighter, he was assigned to No. 412 Squadron and experienced his first combat action on Nov. 8, 1941. On Dec. 19, 1941, Magee was killed in an air accident when his Spitfire collided in a cloud with an Airspeed Oxford trainer. He was 19 years old.

In 1941 Magee’s father was the curate of Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., and he reprinted High Flight in a number of church publications. The sonnet came to the attention of Archibald McLeish, Librarian of Congress, who acclaimed it as the first great poem of the war and included it in Faith and Freedom, the Library of Congress exhibition of war poems, in February 1942.

Reprinted and broadcast countless times, High Flight is regarded as one of the world’s great war poems and the greatest anthem of aviation. It is the official poem of the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Air Force. First year cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy are required to memorize it. Extracts have been quoted in a variety of occasions. The most famous example occurred on Jan. 28, 1986, when President Ronald Reagan, speaking of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, closed his address with the sentence: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

 

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air . . .

 

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never lark nor even eagle flew –

And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

By

DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-dwight-jon-zimmerman bypostauthor even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-9692">
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    I want to thank Tom and Kathleen Rodgers and Bonnie Latino for confirming some facts for me.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-76486">

    To all the comrades of our War of ww 2 . I was very moved when The day of Rememberance day Nov 11 at my church of St John ,s the Divine anglian in Squamish bn.c canada , I belong to the Royal Canadain Legion 277 , We just had a full day of our Rememerance service and Alot of poeple came out to pay respected for our pass Veterian,s of the pas s w w wars 1 ( 2 ) This 80 yr old gental man John Fraser of the Concervitive party in ca a Retired Vet from KorA he read out this wonderful Poem from officer john g Magee wrote this High Flight I was so much moved and every one else in oue church , singing songs of the war but not loke the ones old one writin in 1914 1941 full of life , My Mother was in the Canadian Air force in U.K in 1941 to 1945 . Gwlady,s Phillips , god bless Officer G J Magee . your truly Eleanor Faveris Royal Canadian Legion 277 . p.s my daughter was a honey dear man Richard Patterson from AFGANISTAN war he in a hosptal in ALPASO TEXUS u.S.A . god bless to all our Vets