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   Inside Out - Yorkshire & Lincolnshire: Friday February 23, 2007
"Something must have inspired a teenager to have such a powerful insight."
Poet Lemn Sissay
High Flight - an inspirational poem written by a teenager

Fighter pilot poet

High Flight is one of the world's best-known poems.

It's loved by aviators, astronauts and politicians.

President Ronald Reagan quoted from it in his broadcast to the nation following the Challenger shuttle disaster.

It has also been used as a recruiting tool by the US Air Force.

Now an Inside Out investigation may have solved the 65-year-old mystery surrounding the well-loved poem.

Inside Out investigates the man behind the poem - John Gillespie Magee Junior.

More about John Gillespie Magee

High Flight

High Flight, a remarkable evocation of the joy of flight, was written by 19-year-old American John Gillespie Magee, a wartime Spitfire pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

John Gillespie Magee's grave
Monument to a poet - the grave of John Gillespie Magee

He was killed in 1941 when his plane collided in mid-air over Lincolnshire.

His poem, written on the back of an envelope, was sent home to his parents weeks before the crash, and gained fame when it was picked up by the American media after his death.

Now Inside Out has discovered that the poem may have been inspired by a little-known side-effect of oxygen starvation.

We've established that a few weeks before the famous lines - in which Magee writes how he "slipped the surly bonds of earth" and "touched the face of God" - his Spitfire suffered oxygen failure.

Oxygen starvation

Magee wrote in his logbook of experiencing symptoms of hypoxia - oxygen starvation - before he safely descended below 10,000 feet where the air is breathable.

Spitfire and the poet
Out of body experience? Could hypoxia have been a factor?

Hypoxia can produce sensations of elation, often provoking spontaneous laughter, confusion and changed colour perception.

Some aircrew have also described out-of-body experiences.

These can be fatal when suffered by the pilot of a high performance plane.

But they are all effects that could explain the imagery in the poem, which is accepted to be his finest work.

Magee's brother, Hugh, told Inside Out:

"I have not heard this theory before but I really think you're onto something there.

"Poets have often used drink or drugs to see the world in different ways and this makes sense."

Magee was killed in December 1941 when his plane - based at Wellingore, near Sleaford - collided with an Airspeed Oxford trainer near RAF Cranwell.

He is buried in a country churchyard at nearby Scopwick where an annual parade by British, Canadian and American airmen marks the anniversary of his death.

Intense experience

Aerial view
Testing the theory - oxygen starvation

To test the new theory, Inside Out put former Red Arrows pilot Dave Slow through a simulated flight to 25,000 feet without oxygen in the RAF's hypobaric chamber at Henlow in Bedfordshire.

He struggled to read the poem and was finally stumped by a shape-sorting puzzle designed for two-year-olds before a doctor was forced to give him back his oxygen mask.

Afterwards, Slow - a former Harrier pilot who flew missions in the Balkans conflict - said:

"Suddenly it all makes sense. High Flight means a lot to most pilots - I've lost count of how many funerals I have heard it read at.

"It certainly feels like the way someone in a hypoxic state would see the world.

"I can't say I was moved to poetry but I can see how it would shape your view of flying.

"It's an intriguing theory about something that's always been a bit of a mystery."

Amazing insight

Lemn Sissay, a modern poet who is the son of an airline pilot, has made a study of the poem.

He says that it still rates as a truly great piece of work, but was clearly inspired by an intense experience - previously attributed to Magee's first flight in a Spitfire Mark V.

Sissay added:

"Magee wrote this poem at the age when most of us were chasing girls or squeezing spots.

"Something must have inspired a teenager to have such a powerful insight."

Lemn Sissay
Lemn Sissay investigates John Gillespie Magee's inspiration

But RAF medical experts say the poem may also have been inspired by another physiological effect of flight - the Breakthrough Phenomenon.

This was only discovered in the 1950s and is often known as the Big Hand.

This makes pilots feel remote from their aircraft, often imagining themselves looking down at themselves in the cockpit, with feelings of doom or overwhelming joy.

Air Commodore Bill Coker, head of the RAF's Aviation Medicine Centre and a poetry enthusiast, says:

"I think this is a more likely theory, though you cannot rule out hypoxia."

Find out more...

The Inside Out investigation is part of a week of programming on BBC Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, which includes special reports on BBC Radio Lincolnshire and Look North.

Members of the county's aviation community - including the Red Arrows - have also recorded a modern, online reading of High Flight which can be viewed at BBC Lincolnshire.

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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 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.

John Gillespie Magee Junior

Thanks to the family of John Gillespie Magee Junior for permission to publish the poem.

John Gillespie Magee biography

John Gillespie Magee Junior
John Gillespie Magee Junior - a remarkable talent

Born June 9, 1922 in Shanghai, China. His American father and British mother worked as Anglican missionaries.

Started his education at the American School in Nanking before moving to Britain in 1931 where he studied at Walmer, Kent and then at Rugby School (1935-1939).

Won Rugby School's poetry prize in 1938.

Moved to the USA to live with his aunt in Pittsburgh in 1939.

Earned a scholarship to Yale in 1940 but opted to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Trained in flying in Ontario, Canada - passed out in 1941.

Sent to Britain's Spitfire operational training unit in Wales in 1941, and then joined the new No 412 Fighter Squadron at Digby, Lincs.

Wrote the poem High Flight on 3 September 1941 shortly before his death. Also sent a copy on the back of a letter to his parents.

Died aged 19 on December 11, 1941 when his Spitfire collided with an Oxford Trainer from RAF Cranwell over the village of Roxholm between RAF Cranwell and RAF Digby in Lincolnshire.

Buried at Holy Cross, Scopwick Cemetery in Lincs - the first and last lines from High Flight are inscribed on his grave.

Archibald McLeish, the Librarian of Congress, included High Flight in an exhibition of poems at the Library of Congress in February 1942 - and helped to make it widely known in the media.

Bed bug c/o Richard Naylor
Bed bug - feeling itchy yet?
Photo copyright of Richard Naylor, University of Sheffield

Bed bugs

We meet a family who found they were sharing their beds with a pest from the past - bed bugs.

Here's our bed bugs fact file:

Bedbugs live exclusively on blood.

They feed by injecting their saliva into your skin then sucking out blood for up to ten minutes.

Bedbugs grow up to half a centimetre in length - that's about the size of a fingernail.

One female bedbug could lead to around 3,000 in three months.

Bedbugs can survive for up to six months without a meal.

They were almost wiped out after the Second World War when the chemical DDT was used to eradicate them. However DDT was banned in the 1980s and they've been on the increase since then.

The bedbug now seems to be extremely resistant to modern pesticides.

Their re-emergence is partly attributed to the increase in cheap travel and experts say they are most often found in cheap backpacker accommodation and hotels in big cities.

Symptoms include sleepless nights, itchy blotches and hard white swellings of the skin.

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