Ronald Reagan, addressing NASA employees following the tragic loss of the Challenger 7 crew STS-51L, used the poem in a well-remembered line:
"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." - President Ronald Reagan
During the desperate days of the Battle of
Britain, hundreds of Americans crossed the border into Canada to enlist with the
Royal Canadian Air Force. Knowingly breaking the law, but with the tacit
approval of the then still officially neutral United States Government, they
volunteered to fight the Nazis.
John Gillespie Magee, Jr., was one such American.
Born in Shanghai, China, in 1922 to an English mother and a
Scotch-Irish-American father, Magee was 18 years old when he entered flight
training. Within the year, he was sent to England and posted to the newly formed
No 412 Fighter Squadron, RCAF, which was activated at Digby, England, on 30 June
1941. He was qualified on and flew the Supermarine Spitfire.
Flying fighter sweeps over France and air defense
over England against the German Luftwaffe, he rose to the rank of Pilot Officer.
On 3 September 1941, Magee flew a high altitude
(30,000 feet) test flight in a newer model of the Spitfire V. As he orbited and
climbed upward, he was struck with the inspiration of a poem -- "To touch the
face of God."
Once back on the ground, he wrote a letter to his
parents. In it he commented, "I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It
started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed." On the back of
the letter, he jotted down his poem, 'High Flight'.
Photo courtesy Captain Keith Moody
Just three months later, on 11 December 1941 (and
only three days after the US entered the war), Pilot Officer John Gillespie
Magee, Jr., was killed. The Spitfire V he was flying, VZ-H, collided with an
Oxford Trainer from Cranwell Airfield flown by one Ernest Aubrey. The mid-air
happened over the village of Roxholm which lies between RAF Cranwell and RAF
Digby, in the county of Lincolnshire at about 400 feet AGL at 11:30. John was
descending in the clouds. At the enquiry a farmer testified that he saw the
Spitfire pilot struggle to push back the canopy. The pilot, he said, finally
stood up to jump from the plane. John, however, was too close to the ground for
his parachute to open. He died instantly. He was 19 years old.
Part of the official letter to his parents read,
"Your son's funeral took place at Scopwick Cemetery, near Digby Aerodrome, at
2:30 P.M. on Saturday, 13th December, 1941, the service being conducted by
Flight Lieutenant S. K. Belton, the Canadian padre of this Station. He was
accorded full Service Honors, the coffin being carried by pilots of his own
John's parents were living in Washington D.C.
at the time, and the sonnet was seen by Archibald MacLeish, who was Librarian of
Congress. He included it in an exhibition of poems called 'Faith and Freedom' in
February 1942. And after that it was widely copied and distributed. These copies
vary widely in punctuation, layout, and capitalization, as I found out from
readers! The original is in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress,
and I think I've transcribed it correctly. Note that most printed versions use
eagle" but the original seems to be "... ever
with similar penmanship to the preceding "never."
High flight was shown over pictures of
mountains and American flags and fighter aircraft as a station closing video on
US television stations. Unfortunately, I do not know where to get a copy of this
Supermarine "Spitfire" MK L.F. XVIE
The Spitfire, one of the most famous airplanes of the World War II period, was designed in 1934-35.
Deliveries from production to the Royal Air Force began in the summer of 1938 and by September 3, 1939, when Great Britain declared war on Germany, 400 Spitfires were in service.
Production of continuously improved Spitfires lasted through and beyond the war years, with the last one delivered from the factory in February 1948.
Altogether, 20,351 Spitfires were built, plus 2,406 Seafires, Spitfires modified to operate from aircraft carriers.
The Spitfire saw extensive action over Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranean, southern Europe, the Near East, and the Far East,
and was used by numerous nations allied with Great Britain in the war. In addition to being flown by American pilots assigned to the Eagle Squadrons,
the airplane was also used by several USAAF fighter and reconnaissance groups operating from England and North Africa in 1942-1945.
The Spitfire on exhibit was donated to the U.S. Air Force by the Royal Air Force in 1958.
Span: 36 ft. 10 in.
Length: 31 ft. 3 in.
Height: 12 ft. 7 in.
Weight: 7,300 lbs. loaded
Armament: Two 20mm cannon and two .50 caliber machine guns
Engine: Packard-built Rolls-Royce Merlin 266 of 1,700 hp.
Serial number: TE330
Maximum speed: 406 mph.
Cruising speed: 243 mph.
Range: 434 miles
Service Ceiling: 43,000 ft.