This is the very essence, the joy and thrill of flight; dancing in the sky on laughter-silvered wings. The feeling of being alone in the sky, seeing things which few others do. I’m not talking about being a passenger on a commercial aircraft, watching the clouds lazily scud past below you, I’m talking about piloting; the freedom to dive and soar, wheel and spin, tumble and climb as you will. It’s freedom in a way which is barely describable, but a young pilot-poet once managed to do so perfectly:
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, or 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.
Pt Off. John Gillespie Magee, Jr, RCAF, 1941
“High Flight” was written by Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr, an Anglo-American fighter pilot in the Second World War; born in Shanghai in 1922 to an American Father and an English mother, he was educated in England at Rugby public school* where he won school awards for his poetry before the dark clouds of war gathered in 1939. The Second World War interrupted his schooling in the UK, so he was sent to America where he was offered a place at Yale. Instead of taking it up, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force to become a fighter pilot instead and fight in the skies of Europe. Magee wrote his most famous piece on the back of an envelope during an instrument check sortie**; it was only his seventh trip up in a Spitfire MkV during training. Flying higher than Everest, where you are reliant upon oxygen to sustain life, the poem struck him all in one go and he’d basically finished by the time he came back down to land. In the letter he wrote to his parents containing the poem, he said “I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 ft and was finished soon after I landed” (Piette, Rawlinson, 2012). His father published it in his church newspaper, the US media found it and published it, it ended up in the Library of Congress in an exhibit called “faith and freedom” and the rest, as they say, is history.
This is a powerful and well known poem for all those involved in aviation in some manner; it positively screams “Spitfire!“. In describing the footless halls of air and the joy of flight – of freedom to soar like a bird, soaring higher than any of them – Magee succeeds in getting the thrill of flight onto paper. Beyond that, he succeeds in somehow capturing the other-worldliness of flight; to slip the surly bonds of Earth and climb sunward above the troubles of the world, leaving them behind. Writing this snippet of pure untroubled joy in the midst of a global conflict is remarkable. I was lucky enough to learn to fly when I was at Oxford University via the gliding club; whilst it’s not exactly in the same league as a high performance propeller driven warplane from the 40’s, there’s a simple joy in flying sailplanes. Soaring in columns of rising air, reading the lift and sink in the patterns of clouds, flying through the feel of the aircraft and listening to the rise and fall of the rushing wind as you climb and dive. The thrill of sharing your rising thermal with a soaring buzzard or kite who inquisitively flies up to your wingtip, the thrill of the kick in the seat of your pants as you catch a strong thermal, g force pulling at you as you turn tighter to stay within it, the thrill of out-climbing all the other aircraft in the sky, remembering all the while that if you make a mistake – you die. Finally, there is sadness at returning to Earth. Magee captures it all perfectly.
Interestingly, Magee had experienced hypoxia on a previous flight at 10,000 ft, which he noted in his logbook. Hypoxia is a shortage of oxygen to the brain often caused by thin air; everyone reacts differently to it, but common symptoms include laughter, elation, and euphoria. If that sounds familiar to the text, you’re not the only person to think that – there is a strong school of thought that Magee was experiencing trouble with his oxygen system again when he came up with his poem. However, other (less romantic) symptoms of hypoxia are confusion and an inability to do complex mental tasks such as mental arithmetic. Later symptoms involve difficulty with basic tasks, such as those coloured shape sorters you give to three year olds***, sleepiness and loss of consciousness. Left long enough, especially at altitudes of 30,000ft, hypoxia can induce a minor case of death. Whilst euphoria and elation are fine inspirational states of mind, only a few symptoms on that list are conducive to either flying a high performance fighter aircraft or writing poetry. However, mild symptoms can result in a suitable frame of mind or serve as inspiration later, and he did write some of the poem on the ground.
Magee was killed in a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire in December 1941 at the age of 19, three months after writing his poem, weeks after sending the letter to his parents, and days after the United States finally joined the war. He collided with an Airspeed Oxford trainer aircraft near his base at RAF Digby at an altitude of about 400ft whilst descending through a break in the clouds with other members of his flight of Spitfires. He abandoned his aircraft but wasn’t high enough for his parachute to open, killing him instantly, along with the pilot of the Oxford. Magee’s wingman remarked that the wreckage of his aircraft “looked like a bird with a broken wing” (Piette, Rawlinson, 2012). He is buried in nearby Scopwick military cemetery; his gravestone carries the first and last lines of his famous poem: “Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth… …Put out my hand, and touched the face of God“. I visited his grave in 2008 when I was based at nearby RAF Cranwell, aged 22, and it had a profound impact on me.
Consequently, it isn’t very surprising that the poem has become a staple for funerals and eulogies in aviation circles; there is an unwritten sadness on re-reading the poem that this knowledge brings. The last line lends itself particularly well; the poem has a bittersweet sentiment running through it like a stick of rock. Underscored throughout the whole poem is the unspoken idea that only through flight can such euphoria be found, whilst neatly tying it all in to heaven in the last line, offering it all up as a sort of vision of what’s to come. Even if you’re not particularly religious, it packs a hefty punch. Famously, Ronald Reagan quoted the last line of the poem in his address to the USA in the hours following the Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, in which 7 astronauts were killed: “We shall never forget them nor the last time we saw them, as they prepared for their mission and waved good-bye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”
Despite these sad connotations (or, indeed, because of them) this is still a wonderful piece of poetry and constantly comes to mind whenever I’m lucky enough to get the chance to go flying nowadays.
Soaring in gliders is a wonderful joy; happiness is to chase the shouting wind along, high in the sunlit silence.
* “Public school”, for Non-Brits, is not what you think. It’s very posh. It’s posher than going to a private school; the general tier system we have is: Comprehensive School (State funded, no requirements for entry, what you would call a public school in the states), Grammar School (State funded, academic requirements for entry, designed to give intelligent yet poor pupils a ladder into university). Grammar schools are currently a political bone of contention in the UK, as they’re perceived as being elitist. After that,we have private schools (fee paying) which are what you’d expect. Fees vary. Finally, we have public schools, which are like private schools on steroids. there’s only about twelve or fourteen in the country: Rugby, Eton and Harrow are famous examples. Fees are extortionate. They row. Rugby invented a sport and named it after itself, for Christ’s sake.
** Where the aim is to fly the aircraft as high as it is possible to go to check everything is working correctly; in short, it’s as close as it’s possible to get to ‘flying for flying’s sake’ in military aviation. Not quite a jolly, but close.
***Seriously. The RAF takes trainee aircrew into a big pressure chamber and slowly depressurise it whilst giving them simple maths problems like 5×5=? and 1+2=? to do. Once they can’t do that, they give them a simple child’s colour and shape sorter to do. Cue much hilarity when they can’t, until the instructor points out they’ll one day be at the controls of a fighter jet worth tens of millions of pounds… getting back down to a sensible altitude is imperative when you have hypoxia! It’s also why you should put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping others next time you’re on an airliner, you’ll pass out faster than you think at 35,000ft. If you have kids, see to yourself first, then fit their mask. If you have more than one child, you’ll soon figure out which is your favourite.
The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century British and American War Literature – Piette, A; Rawlinson, M. Edinburgh University Press, 2012
Wikipedia, accessed 23 Mar 17
BBC, accessed 23 Mar 17