John Magee was an American teenager, educated at Rugby in England, who set aside his scholarship at Yale to go to Canada in 1940 where he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.
By September 1941 he was based at RAF Digby in the UK, flying the Spitfire. It was during one of these flights that he got the idea for his poem which he finished soon after and sent home to his parents.
Three months later, on the 11 December, Pilot Officer Magee was dead, killed in a mid-air collision with a student pilot near RAF Cranwell. He is buried in the military cemetery at Scopwick.
His poem has lived on, the original manuscript being held in the Library of Congress in the USA. Later in the war, the poem was used in posters which were sent to every airfield in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth.
In 1971, James Irwin, pilot of the Apollo 15 Lunar Module, carried a copy of the poem with him to the moon. President Regan quoted from the poem following the Challenger disaster in 1986, and in 1998 it was included in the eulogy to America’s first man in space, Alan Shephard.
A Tribute To Flight
An American officer stationed at RAF Digby suggested to Edward Ash that he make a painting to mark the 65th anniversary, the result is 'A tribute to High Flight'.
The painting recalls Magee’s time on 412 (RCAF) Squadron when he was first inspired to write High Flight. It depicts Supermarine Spitfire Mark IIa "VZ-E", the aircraft shared between John Magee and Flight Sergeant MacDonnell in which MacDonnell had the honour of becoming the first 412 Squadron pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft.
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 silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.