BCATP profile: Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., author of “High Flight”

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News Article / June 9, 2016

By Major Bill March

The author of the Air Force’s best-loved poem was born on this date in 1922.

In the months before the United States’ entry into the Second World War on December 7, 1941, thousands of Americans came north to Canada to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Almost all of them would graduate from the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) before continuing on to RCAF and Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons throughout the world. Identified by a “U.S.A.” patch on the shoulders of their RCAF uniform, these transplanted Americans easily stood out.

In 2016, the RCAF is commemorating the BCATP, one of the largest air training programs the world has ever seen.

But none more than Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., author of the famous poem, “High Flight”, now considered to be the Air Forceʼs poem.

Magee was born on June 9, 1922, in Shanghai, China. He was the youngest of four sons born to an American missionary father and an English mother who hoped that the young Magee would grow up experiencing the best of both cultures. At the ripe age of nine, he left for England to commence a proper British education with the goal of attending university in the United States.  And it was while he was at the Rugby School in Warwickshire that Magee developed an interest in poetry that would eventually lead to his winning the school’s Poetry Prize in 1939.

That summer he was sent to live with family in the United States and spent the following year working towards his acceptance at Yale University. But with most of Europe now embroiled in an ever-widening war, Magee and many of his friends grew increasingly intent on helping prevent the spread of fascism. In the spring of 1940, with England’s back against the wall after the capitulation of France, he applied for a visa so he could join the RAF. However, his application was rejected by American authorities who, in accordance with government isolationist policies, were not supportive of citizens travelling to the battlefields of Europe.

In July, Magee was accepted to Yale University, but the exploits of the RAF – now in the midst of the Battle of Britain – made the young American even more determined to get involved. As he explained to his family: “I just can’t go to Yale… I’ve never felt so deeply about anything before and I have got to get into this and join the Royal Canadian Air Force.” Instead of commencing his studies in September, Magee, reluctantly supported by his parents, boarded a train in New York City bound for Ottawa.

Embarking on an Air Force career would be an eye-opening experience for the 18-year-old and one that almost came to an end in front of an RCAF recruiting officer. Informed in no uncertain terms that he was more than seven kilograms (16 pounds) underweight, Magee was told to return in a few weeks and try again. For the next 14 days, Magee followed a “rigorous regime” of non-exercise and “gorging” on whatever food came to hand. His efforts successful (albeit just barely), a slightly pudgy Aircraftman Second Class Magee soon found himself on his way to No. 1 Manning Depot, Toronto.

After a short stay at the Depot to acquire his Air Force “kit” and undergo basic training,

Magee was sent to RCAF Station Trenton as part of the security detachment.  It was common for young airmen to join a station’s security detail while waiting for a training slot to open up at a BCATP school. They stood guard for hours at a time and, growing bored, would often stir up trouble. Magee was no exception.

 Returning late from leave on one occasion, he found himself engaged in a one-sided discussion with the station warrant officer that resulted a few days’ detention. His brush with Air Force discipline did nothing to diminish his poetic side, as seen in his description of Trenton: “This whole place, thrills to the vivid, eager living of men who realize that they are almost certainly in the last year of life…. An aeroplane to us is not 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.”

After a short stint of leave to visit his family in Washington, District of Columbia – where his RCAF uniform caused quite a stir – Magee was sent to No. 9 Elementary Flying School in St. Catharines, Ontario. Operated by the St. Catharines Flying Club, the school was equipped with Fleet Finch aircraft. Although coming perilously close to “pranging” (crashing) his aircraft more than once, he eventually graduated as part of Course 19 on March 14, 1941. In part, his assessment read: “Ability above average. Conduct and deportment – only fair. This Trainee showed excellent results on his flying, and stood first in his ground school subjects, but does not have sense of responsibility, neatness or order. With careful watching during his further training should develop into a very good Service pilot.”

Newly promoted Leading Aircraftman Magee now found himself posted to No. 2 Service Flying Training School at Uplands, Ontario. Thrilled to be flying the more powerful Harvard and Yale aircraft, he wrote to a friend: “I have found my place in the sun…. I am finding that flying has been in my blood all the time and I didn’t know it.” However, the young airman still had a lot to learn. After a particularly challenging week, during which he wrecked his aircraft on a botched landing, Magee found himself spending much of his free time washing aircraft as a reminder to pay attention while in the air. In spite of these mishaps, Group Captain Wilfred A. Curtis pinned brand new pilot wings on a beaming Magee in June 1941.

After a short period of embarkation leave, where Magee learned he had been promoted to pilot officer, he returned to England. He trained on Spitfire fighter aircraft at No. 53 Operational Training Unit at RAF Station, Llandow, Wales. He thought that the Spitfire was “…a thrilling and at the same time a terrifying aircraft….” Encouraged by a fellow pilot to record his feelings, he quickly penned the poem for which he would be remembered – on the back of an envelope. “High Flight” almost seemed to write itself and, after sending a copy home to his family, he explained that “[it started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed. I thought it might interest you.”

In September 1941, Magee joined No. 412 Squadron, one of the RCAF squadrons formed under the auspices of Article XV of the BCATP agreement, at RAF Station Digby. His time with the unit was short. On December 11, while on a routine flight, Magee’s Spitfire collided with a training aircraft whilst in a cloud. A witness on the ground reported that he had climbed out onto the wing of the stricken Spitfire, but his parachute failed to deploy properly and he was killed. Nineteen-year old John Gillespie Magee is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, Scopwick, Lincolnshire. Most appropriately, the first and last lines of his poem are included on his headstone.

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth. Put out my hand and touched the face of God.”

High Flight

Note that the heirs to Pilot Officer Mageeʼs estate have asked that the poem not be translated into other languages.

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.  

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