High Flight
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 windswept 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.

During the dark 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 Hitler's Germany.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr., was one such American. Born in Shanghai, China, in 1922, Magee was just 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.

On September 3, 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."

Just three months later, on December 11, 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 while over Tangmere, England. The two planes were flying in the clouds and neither saw the other. He was just 19 years old.


The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded after liftoff, January 28, 1986. Besides Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to fly in space, the Challenger crew consisted of mission commander Francis R. Scobee; pilot Michael J. Smith; mission specialists Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, and Judith A. Resnik; and payload specialists Gregory B. Jarvis. That evening, President Reagan's speech referenced Magee's poem: "We will never forget them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God."


I spent twenty years working in the Aircraft and Space industries. So it is not surprising that I might have had a keen interest in flying and that I eventually also attained the goal of escaping the surly bonds of earth and spent many hours at the controls of personal flying machines. In 1957 I joined Douglas Aircraft Company Santa Monica whose backyard was the Santa Monica Airport. I would get up early in the mornings to take flying lessons which normally ends with a few touch and go landings and then reluctantly taxiing up to the Company gate to go to work. I received my Private Pilot's license in 1958, and in 1965 after I completed my graduate studies at UCLA, I resumed my activity in flying and got my IFR (instrument flight regulation) rating. I bought a Cessna 150, a single engine two seater plane, small, but fully instrumented with dual VOR's, ILS (instrument landing system) equipped, emergency locator beacon and even a transponder so that the nation wide network of flight controllers could locate me and could know whether I was being hi-jacked. I've criss-crossed the country several times and enjoyed many short weekend camping trips to Grand Canyon, Lake Tahoe, Crater Lake, etc. When Douglas Aircraft Co became McDonnell-Douglas Aeronautical Company and moved to its new facilities in Huntington Beach, I commuted to work via instrument flight plan from Santa Monica Airport to Seal Beach Airport rather than taking the freeways. There comes a time to move on. I've stopped flying since 1980, but the feelings expressed in Magee's poem are indelible - the slipping of the surly bonds, the soaring high in sunlit silence, the breaking out on top of clouds on IFR flights to a brilliant sunburst - those images, those sensations, linger on.


On February 1, 2003 the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over the Arizona-Texas sky on re-entry. The background image of the window you are looking at is a photograph taken by the crew on board the Columbia on this its last mission, on a cloudless day. Perished on the fateful mission were U.S. citizens Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, and Israeli fighter pilot Colonel Ilan Ramon.

The picture is of Europe and Africa when the sun is setting. Half of the picture is in night. The bright dots you see are the cities lights.

The top part of Africa is the Sahara Desert. Note that the lights are already on in Holland, Paris, and Barcelona, and that's it's still daylight in Dublin, London, Lisbon, and Madrid.

The sun is still shining on the Strait of Gibraltar. The Mediterranean Sea is already in darkness.

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean you can see the Azores Islands; below them to the right are the Madeira Islands; a bit below are the Canary Islands; and further South, close to the farthest western point of Africa, are the Cape Verde Islands.

Note that the Sahara is huge and can be seen clearly both during Daytime and night time.

To the left, on top, is Greenland, totally frozen.

screen credit: John and Fran Hill, West Virginia