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Scopwick, Lincolnshire

Grave of Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr.


Pilot Officer JG Magee. Photograph: Peter Fairweather 11-Feb-86.

Left: The Grave of Pilot Officer Magee, writer of "High Flight" in the Military section of the graveyard at Scopwick, Lincolnshire.

After the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of January 1986, The then US President Ronald Reagan read from this poem, leading the American Tribute to the seven astronauts.

Magee was the son of an American father and English mother, both missionaries in China where it is thought he was born. He trained as a pilot in Ottawa with the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1941, and was transferred to a Spitfire operational training unit in Llandow, South Wales later that year. He died in a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire while on active service on 11th December 1941.

Air Vice-Marshall M.H. Le Bas trained with him in 1941 and recalled:

Scopwick Graveyard. Photograph: Peter Fairweather, 11-Feb-86.During our acquaintanceship, he had always maintained that his first love was poetry, although he had discovered that flying was not far behind. He was thus able to imbue his flying with a sense of lyricism.

I happened to run into him shortly after his first flight in a Spitfire about which he was waxing lyrical. I urged him, though not very seriously, that since he had always wanted to be a poet he should put his feelings down in words.

He thereupon sat down in the mess and composed, in a very short time, the first draft of "High Flight" written, literally, "on the back of an envelope".

I must have been the first person to read it, but cannot claim that I foresaw its eventual fame. It was some years later that I heard of Magee's fate.


High Flight

Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I've climb'd, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things you have not dreamed of - wheel 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 delerious, burning blue I topped the windswept heights with easy grace where never lark, or even eagle flew.

And, while with silent, lifting mind I trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space, put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

By John Gillespie Magee Jr.


There are two more of Magee's poems to be found on Russell Alan Ligeikis' Diamond Flight website


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