Sunday, June 14, 2020


My dear friend's husband Charles died early Saturday morning after a long battle with cancer, COPD and congestive heart failure. He designed airplanes, helicopters, and drones for the military, and was a brilliant artist who let my grandchildren watch as he painted a mural in their home. He loved flying so much that he and his wife bought a ranch in the high desert with a landing strip so that he could fly more easily.  As his illness progressed he could no longer climb into a cockpit but he could identify any flying machine overhead. When his soul took flight, I thought of a poem my mother loved, although she was never a pilot.
“An aeroplane is not to us 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.”

– Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., author of High Flight, in a letter to his parents

On Aug. 18, 1941, Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., of No. 53 Operational Training Unit, Royal Canadian Air Force, climbed into a Spitfire for a test flight. With its unique elliptical wings and legendary Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the nimble Spitfire is arguably the most storied and beautifully designed fighter to come out of World War II. As he flew the fighter through a series of combat maneuvers, Magee experienced a euphoria that typically grips pilots as they put their high performance airplanes through their paces. But, unlike other pilots who after landing walk away thrilled to the point of being speechless, Magee, an accomplished poet, began translating his joyful experience into words on a piece of paper while still airborne. On Sept. 3, 1941, in a letter to his parents 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. I thought it might interest you.” That verse was the sonnet High Flight, the most famous poem to emerge from World War II.

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 nor 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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