"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."

- John Gillespie Magee, Jr. in the letter to his parents which contained "High Flight"

copyright Keith Ferris

John Gillespie Magee, Jr. and HIGH FLIGHT

Being a pilot, I have always had a particular fascination with the poem HIGH FLIGHT.  How could somebody describe so well how I felt about flying?  Somehow or other, 19-year old John Gillespie Magee, Jr. captured the essence of flying in creating this poem.  He also created something that has touched a chord in many people, both pilots and non-pilots.

In 1988, I started wondering about the author.  I found that there was a lack of hard information concerning the origin of the poem, as well as its author.  The information that was out there seemed to be very contradictory, so I set out to find out the truth.

And the truth was... amazing.

I started doing in-depth research on John Magee with the intent on writing a biography.  Along the way I have encountered many people with the same interest; truly, Magee & HIGH FLIGHT are internationally known.  I have found many applications of his poem, many of which I have collected.

Magee in a 412 Squadron (RCAF) Spitfire (recognizable from the "VZ" marking)

More interesting facts about John Magee

Every once in awhile I will post something interesting about John Gillespie Magee, Jr.  Keep checing back, for you never know what new information you might find!

Item #1: After joining the RCAF, Magee trained at several air bases.  Among these was No. 2 SFTS (Service Flying Training School) located at Uplands, Ottawa.  While John was there, part of the movie Captains of the Clouds was filmed there.  I have the movie, and I think that I have spotted John in one of the scenes!  How do I know about this?  John sent a letter to his parents - this particular letter contained the poem High Flight.  On one page, John writes about news and things in general - he also gives a list of films that, if his parents get a chance to see, should see.  One of the films listed is Captains of the Clouds.  John says about the film: "(American) This I think is a film made at Uplands in which I took part (formation, etc.)."  www.IMDB.com does, indeed, mention that the film was filmed entitrely in Canada and at Uplands in particular.  (More trivia: the film stars Jimmy Cagney and Alan Hale.  Alan Hale was the father of the Alan Hale who starred as The Skipper in the television series Gilligan's Island.)

Item #2: Magee wrote High Flight shortly after being assigned to No. 53 O.T.U. (Operational Training Unit) in Llandow, Wales (thanks to alert reader Alex for correcting my earlier mention that Llandow was in England).  According to the letter to his parents in which Magee enclosed High Flight, he started writing it at 30,000 feet and completed it shortly after landing.  The airfield at Llandow is still there, albeit not quite like it used to be.  Thanks to a fantastic piece of software called Google Earth, I zoomed in on the location of the field; lo and behold, there it is!  Click the link to the left to take a look at it.

Item #3: Magee attended Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Connecticut.  While there, an instructor by the name of Paul Child became one of Magee's mentors.  You don't think you know who Paul was, but you might.  Paul left Avon and embarked on many an adventure.  Along the way, he met and married a certain Julia McWilliams.  Julia adopted Paul's last name and became... Julia Child.  Yes, *the* Julia Child.

Item #4:  Ah, the Spitfire.  Pilot Officer John Magee flew three different marks of the Spit: MkIa, MKII, and MkVb.  On his inspirational high flight up to 33,000 feet on August 18th, 1941, Magee flew a Spitfire MkIa, serial number R6976.  Research indicates that this particular aircraft served with 610 Squadron during the Battle of Britain and was used to down a couple of enemy aircraft.  I wonder if John Magee knew the history of his plane?

Some basic facts about
John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

During my research, I encountered many inconsistencies and misconceptions about the origin of the poem, and about the life and death of its author.  Here are some of the basic facts:

    • Magee wrote the famous peom High Flight starting on August 18th, 1941, when he made a flight to 33,000 feet in a Spitfire MKI (NOT a MKV or an "advanced" model).  This was his seventh flight in a Spitfire.
    • Magee included High Flight in a letter dated September 3rd, 1941, to his parents.  This letter is in the Library of Congress.
    • Born June 9th, 1922, in Shanghai, China.
    • Mother was British, father was American, both missionaries.
    • Was educated in China, Japan, England, the United States, and Canada.
    • Was an American serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force, rose to the rank of Pilot Officer.
    • Died on December 11th, 1941 (NOT during the Battle of Britain).
    • Perished as a result of a mid-air collision during training (NOT in combat).
    • John Magee is buried in Scopwick, England.

Getting his Wings

This painting hangs in Rugby School in England, where Magee attended.

"Official" RCAF Photograph

Magee with "Brunhilde" ... "Climbed to 36,000 - crashed - Poor Brunhilde" (notation in Magee's logbook)

My Project

I have completed writing the book about John Magee and his most famous poem. I am now in the process of creating a feature film about the life of John Gillespie Magee and the creation of the poem HIGH FLIGHT.  I have been doing research since 1990 and it continues to the present day.

I am actively searching for people who knew Magee.  I am also seeking reactions from people (not necessarily pilots) about the poem.

In addition, I am looking for instances where HIGH FLIGHT has been used.  Do you know of other places where the poem, or even parts of it, were used?  Please let me know via e-mail:
    ray@highflightproductions.com

Some of the people who I have clips of reciting HIGH FLIGHT (or parts of it):

  • Russell Crowe (in 1994 movie "For The Moment")
  • President Ronald Reagan (speech to nation after Challenger disaster)
  • Senator / Astronaut John Glenn (during Alan Shepard memorial)
  • Cliff Robertson (National Aviation Hall of Fame induction ceremony)
  • Nick Stahl (in Mel Gibson 1993 movie "Man Without A Face")
  • John Denver (in song "Flight (The Higher We Fly)")
  • Patty Wagstaff (3-time world aerobatic champion, during interview)
  • Orson Welles (1946 recording for Radio Reader's Digest)

I have tracked down the use of High Flight on The Simpsons.  Homer says something like this: "Put out my fist, and punch out the face of God."  Classic Simpsons!

Other uses that I have heard of but have not acquired:

  • James Cromwell in the 2003 movie "The Snow Walker"
  • Ronald Coleman (radio broadcast)
  • Television Series:
    • First episode of "The Cape."
    • "Hawaiian Son" with Richard Chamberlain.
    • "West Wing"
    • The movie "Earnest Saves Christmas" (really!)
  • SIR LAURENCE OLIVIER IS REPUTED TO HAVE RECITED THE POEM AT THE FUNERAL FOR WWII MARINE CORPS FIGHTER PILOT AND ACTOR TYRONE POWER.  (I would LOVE to acquire a copy of this recitation... there MUST have been a recording made!!!!)
  • Lots of books (the most recent that I know of is "The Ideals Treasury of Faith in America" first published in 2003... www.idealsbooks.com )

I have created the High Flight Compilation DVD using some of the clips that I have collected.  I am using the proceeds to help support my production of the John Gillespie Magee, Jr. & High Flight film.  You can purchase it by visiting my store .

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John's mother Faith Magee recites High Flight.
(courtesy of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)

Remnants of RAF airfield at Llandow, Wales, where No. 53 OTU was located.  Magee took off from here on the flight that would inspire him to write High Flight.

Here's a link to "The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor" for the week of December 19, 2005.  If you scroll down to the entry for December 20, you'll see... High Flight!  Mr. Keillor recites High Flight in his wonderful voice.  (You will need RealPlayer to listen.) 

All News and Log items have been moved to a Blog.  Here's the link:

The Poem
(very carefully copied from the original manuscript):

In my mind, Magee and the Supermarine Spitfire are inextricably linked.  I believe that the Spitfire, combined with Magee the poet-pilot, produced High Flight.  Click on the above link the hear a wonderful song by Ivor and Kevan Bundell: "Mr. Mitchell's Angel" (RJ Mitchell was the designer of the Spitfire).

I was asked to assist in the production of a radio story about John Magee and High Flight.  Here is the roughly half-hour program.  I must admit that it's strange to hear my own voice!

Vintage Wings of Canada works hard to preserve the memory of the people and aircraft that have made a difference to the world.  This article is about their restoral of a North American Harvard to the colors and markings of a Harvard that John Magee flew (a project that I was involved with).

August 18th is HIGH FLIGHT's creation anniversary date!

August 18th, 1941, was a Monday.  Pilot Officer John Magee was in Llandow, Wales, undergoing his operational training on Spitfires at No. 53 Operational Training Unit (OTU).  John started the course on August the 6th, a flight in a Master I with Flight Officer Bache. 

The next day, John took a second flight in a different Master I with a different instructor.  Apparently John impressed his instructors, for his very first flight in a Spitfire was on the same day.

Eleven days later, after his seventh flight in a Spitfire, John records in his logbook: "Climb to 33,000 feet."  This flight was made in a Spitfire MKI, serial number R6976.  The flight was two hours long.

When John wrote the letter to his parents that included High Flight, he remarks, "It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed."  The poem is dated September 3rd, 1941.  So I feel fairly safe in assuming the High Flight was composed between August 18th and September 3rd.

Here is the pertinent page from John's logbook:

 

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