Naval Stories: “High Flight” – More than a poem

by Keith Kaniut

“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;…
From the poem by
John Gillespie Magee Jr. (June 1922-December 1941)

These are the first two lines of the poem High Flight (the whole poem is included at the end of this post). It is one of my favorites and perfectly describes the emotions I often felt while flying. It was only recently that I learned the full story of the poem’s author, a 19-year old American who gave up a scholarship to Yale and enlisted in October 1940 in the Canadian Royal Air Force to become a pilot for the defense of Britain in WWII. The story of John Gillespie Magee Jr. is sad, fascinating and inspirational. (Here’s the Wiki article.) He died young – barely 19 years old – killed in a mid-air collision with another aircraft during training in the UK. After earning his wings he was sent to a fighter squadron in Britain that flew the Spitfire Mk-II and then the Mk-Vb. It was shortly after the thrill of flying one of the new Mk-Vb’s to 33,000 feet that he penned his famous poem.

(Some info from the Wiki article: He borrowed the final line (“put out my hand and touched the face of God.”) from a poem by Cuthbert Hicks, admitting that it was this line that inspired him to write his own poem. Hick’s poem “The Blind Man Flies” was published three years earlier.)

John Magee Jr. wrote the poem, sent it home in a letter to his parents and was killed not long afterwards. It would have been forgotten long ago except that: 

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“…his father, then curate of Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, reprinted it in church publications. The poem became more widely known through the efforts of Archibald MacLeish, then Librarian of Congress, who included it in an exhibition of poems called “Faith and Freedom” at the Library of Congress in February 1942…” (from Wiki article)

It was also read aloud by Hollywood stars doing patriotic tribute shows, and inscribed on tombstones of many lost airmen over the years. It is still the official poem of both the Royal Canadian and Royal Air Forces and every first-year US Air Force Academy cadet must memorize it. In the 60’s many TV stations would end their broadcast days with a video of an Air Force jet flying (see link here) while the poem was recited.

030411-N-0780F-271 Northern Iraq (Apr. 11, 2003) Ð An F/A-18 The F/A-18 Hornet is an all-weather aircraft used as an attack aircraft as well as a fighter. U.S. Navy photo by Paul Farley. (RELEASED)

It stuck with me and helped me understand the sense of wonder I would feel when the right combination of clouds and sky and a highly maneuverable aircraft came together – like the first time I flew a F/A-18 Hornet.

My squadron was transitioning from the A-7E Corsair II to the new F-18C Hornet. We were switching from a working horse, one that could capably plow the field, to a race horse with power, grace and speed. Suddenly, we had more power, speed and agility than we’d ever dreamed of. For example, on a hot day with a full fuel load, the underpowered A-7 struggled to accelerate to takeoff speed and then climbed without much enthusiasm until you had accelerated to at least 300 knots airspeed. In contrast, the Hornet in full afterburner could take off almost vertically.

I completed my flight simulator training and was scheduled for my first airplane flight in a two-seat “D” model with an instructor in the back. It was a simulated instrument navigation flight with approaches into San Clemente Island Naval Air Facility airfield off the coast of Los Angeles and then back at the home base in Lemoore, California in the Central Valley southwest of Fresno. It was a typical clear Autumn day on the coast and in less than a half hour we were over LA and starting the approach into San Clemente Island.

Although I’d only flown the Hornet in the simulators so far, I was comfortable flying it. It flew like you expected a “hot” aircraft to fly. It went where you pointed it and had all the bells and whistles you wanted in an aircraft with 30-years newer technology than the Corsair. In short, it was my dream aircraft.

F/A-18 Landing

The instrument approach was uneventful. It wasn’t difficult to fly the Hornet precisely. It had both the controls sensitivity and the stability that made a good instrument platform. I flew a ground-controlled approach (GCA), our most accurate instrument approach back in the 80’s. The ground controller monitored your position on radar and gave radio directions to keep you on glideslope and on course: “Come right 2 degrees; approaching glideslope from below; Up and on glideslope.” I flew the glideslope and centerline down to 200-feet on the radar altimeter and then simulated not being able to see the runway by performing a “missed approach”. This meant adding full power, raising the gear and flaps and climbing via the “missed approach” path, generally over the runway and then turning to an outbound radial to try again. I radio’d the Approach controller.

“Hornet 503 is missed approach. Request clearance Navy Lemoore.”

“Hornet 503 you are cleared via to altitude 150 (15,000 feet) and then via flight planned route (the route we’d filed with the FAA) Navy Lemoore. On reaching 150, switch to LA Center on frequency …(a radio channel)”

It was a beautiful day – clear sky and no clouds. You could see for miles up and down the coast. There was nobody visible in the direction I was flying. During my approach, I had been checking my fuel and determined that I had more fuel than needed for the return flight. With that in mind, when I added full power for my missed approach, I decided to go all the way to full afterburner, something I’d never experienced before, even in the flight simulators.

“…Up, up the long delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
where never lark, or even eagle, flew;…”

A U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet assigned to Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) (U.S. Marine Corps photograph by SSgt. Artur Shvartsberg, MAWTS-1 COMCAM/Released)

Full afterburner was most satisfying! As soon as I raised the gear and flaps the Hornet quickly accelerated to 250 knots. I had to quickly raise the nose to maintain that airspeed, the maximum allowable airspeed below 10,000 feet. Passing through 11,000 feet I looked in my side mirrors and saw that my climb angle was so steep that I was still over the runway and going up like a rocket.

Accustomed to a single-pilot aircraft, my next move was instinctive. I had to get the Hornet’s nose back on the horizon by the time we hit 15,000 feet to avoid breaking through my cleared altitude. I was going up too steeply to simply push the nose back over with forward stick – it would have required negative “g” to hit the altitude. So I rolled upside down and gently pulled back on the stick to move the nose “down” towards the horizon, timing it so that as I rolled back upright, the altimeter was nailed at my assigned altitude. I reported “Hornet 503 is level at 150” to the LA Center controller. “Hornet 503 you are cleared direct Navy Lemoore at 150. Switch frequency …..”

The instructor in my back seat had been quiet during the approach. Over the intercom he cleared his throat “Ummm, Sir? Just for future reference, in the Hornet we don’t generally use full afterburner on instrument missed approaches. A lot of A-7 pilots make that mistake the first time.”

He was right of course. But then he added, “But I admit it was pretty cool!”

That was my first and last afterburner missed approach. Full throttle was more than sufficient. But it wasn’t the last time I understood how that young American John Magee Jr. had felt when he wrote…

“[I]…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.”

In tribute and to the memory of Canadian Royal Air Force Pilot-Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr.

“High Flight”

By 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.
Hovering 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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