WWII “High Flight” Poem Is Official Ode to Fighter Pilots
“High Flight” is an ode to fighter pilots written by American aviator John Gillespie Magee, Jr. His parents were missionaries in China, where he was born and attended school.
Because America wasn’t in the war yet, Magee joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, and was was sent to England to fly the Spitfire, in which he died on December 11, 1941, four days after Pearl Harbor, at age 19.
”High Flight” is the official poem of the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Air Force. Cadets at the USAF Academy must recite the poem from memory (it’s on display in the Cadet Field House). Ronald Reagan quoted it.
Aviation artist Keith Ferris included the poem along with his interpretive painting of the poem (below).
The Magee “webinar” (pictured above, 2011) provides more detail about his short life, but makes the point that “there is a more than 50-50 chance that the poem High Flight will be read at your funeral by a family member or fellow flier”:
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 have trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
- Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.