Seventy years ago today, a 19-year-old American aviator was killed overseas.
The Royal Canadian Air Force Spitfire he was piloting collided with another military plane in cloud cover 1,400 feet above the hamlet of Roxholme in Lincolnshire, England.
John Gillespie Magee, Jr. is remembered not for the accident that claimed his life, or for his relation to the wealthy Pittsburgh Magee family, but for a poem he had written a few months earlier and had mailed to his parents on the back of a letter:
"High Flight" 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, or even eagle flew -- And, while with silent lifting mind I have trod The high untrespassed sanctity of space, - Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Published after his death, Magee's "High Flight" is now closely associated with military aviators and astronauts.
Speechwriter Peggy Noonan quoted parts of the first and last lines of the poem in remarks she wrote for President Ronald Reagan following the Space Shutle Challenger disaster.
However, most people forty and over are familiar with "High Flight" as a TV station "sign-off":
(YouTube video: "High Flight," often used by television stations to end the broadcast day. This version is from the 1960s)