High Flight

News Article / November 10, 2014

High Flight

By Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

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.

Pilot Officer John Magee

By Ruthanne Urquhart

In October 1940, the United States was more than a year away from officially entering the Second World War when John Gillespie Magee, Jr., a China-born, England-raised American, crossed the Canada-United States border and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

The 18-year-old did his flight training at British Commonwealth Air Training Plan schools – No. 9 Elementary Flying Training School at RCAF Station St. Catharine’s, Ontario, and No. 2 Service Flying Training School at RCAF Station Uplands, near Ottawa, Ontario. He received his wings and promotion in spring 1941.

Pilot Officer Magee was sent to England in June 1941 and was posted to No. 53 Operational Training Unit at Royal Air Force (RAF) Llandow, Wales. After graduation, he was assigned to No. 412 (Fighter) Squadron, RCAF, at RAF Digby, Lincolnshire, where he became a qualified Spitfire pilot.

412 Squadron flew Supermarine Spitfire aircraft on fighter sweeps over France, and battled with the Luftwaffe in the air defence of England.

On September 3, 1941, Pilot Officer Magee made a high-altitude test flight in the newest Spitfire V, and he composed a poem during the flight. Back on the ground, he wrote High Flight on the outside of a letter to his parents. Inside, 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.”

On December 11, 1941, just three days after the United States officially entered the war, Pilot Officer Magee was killed in a mid-air collision with an RAF Oxford Trainer aircraft in the sky above Roxholm, Lincolnshire, about five kilometres by air from RAF Digby.

He is buried in the churchyard cemetery at Scopwick, Lincolnshire. High Flight lives on as the official poem of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Editor’s note: The heirs to Pilot Officer Magee’s estate have requested that High Flight not be translated into other languages.

Date modified: