Sunday, February 5, 2023

John Gillespie Magee, Jr. - Author of the Poem "High Flight"

 By Mary Dodge Allen

Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings...”

Written in 1941, the poem "High Flight" is an inspirational depiction of flying:

· It is the official poem of the Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force

· It has to be recited by memory by fourth year cadets at the United States Air Force Academy

· It appears on many headstones in the Arlington National Cemetery

· An abbreviated version was taken to the moon by astronaut James Irwin on the Apollo 15 mission

· The original manuscript is kept at the U.S. Library of Congress

The life and untimely death of Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr:

John was born on June 9, 1922 in Shanghai, China. His father, John Magee Sr. grew up as part of a wealthy family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but he chose a life of service as an Episcopal priest. While serving as a missionary in China, John Sr. met and married Faith Emmeline Backhouse, a British missionary. John was the oldest of their four boys.

L-R standing: David; Faith Emmeline; John 
L-R seated: John Magee Sr. holding Hugh; Christopher

John began his schooling at the American School in Nanking, China. When the family moved to England in 1931, he attended a preparatory school for four years before transferring to Rugby School in 1935. While at this school, he pursued his avid interest in writing poetry, and he won the school’s coveted Poetry Prize in 1938.

In the summer of 1939, John’s family went to visit relatives in the United States. When war broke out in September, John wasn’t able to travel back to Britain to complete his final school year at Rugby. Instead, he enrolled in the Avon Old Farms School, in Avon, Connecticut.

After graduation, John spent the summer of 1940 with his family at Martha’s Vineyard, where he learned to drive. With financial help from his wealthy relatives, John purchased a second-hand Packard convertible, a luxury car at the time. His youngest brother Hugh recalled riding with him as he drove the convertible on unpaved country roads. They often became airborne as they sped over the bumps.

Photo of a similar 1938 Packard Twelve convertible sedan (Public Domain)

John spent that summer attending beach parties and dances. When his clergyman father scolded him about his carefree lifestyle, John replied: “My generation does not expect to live long, and we want to enjoy ourselves while we may.”

Although John was offered a scholarship to attend Yale for the 1940-41 academic year, he felt a need to do something to help his friends in Britain. The Germans had begun what was termed as ‘The Blitz’ - a fierce bombing campaign against Britain, and he wanted to join the fight to defeat the Nazis.

In October 1940, after talking things over with his parents, John enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He completed his flight training in Ontario, Canada, and was awarded his wings and the rank of pilot officer. In July 1941 he was sent overseas to an operational training unit in Wales, to complete his advanced flight training. While there, one of his instructors summarized his flying skill: “Patches of brilliance, tendency to overconfidence.”

Supermarine Spitfire Fighter in flight (Public Domain)

John made his first flight in a Spitfire on August 7, 1941. Later in August, he flew a Spitfire to a height of 33,000 feet. This is considered to be the flight that inspired him to begin writing his poem, “High Flight.” 

He mailed his parents a manuscript of the poem, signed and dated September 3, 1941, three months before his death. John included a note with "High Flight" saying: "It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed. I thought it might interest you."

At the time, John Magee, Sr. was serving as curate of St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. He had his son's poem printed in church publications. But "High Flight" didn't gain widespread attention until February 1942, when Archibald MacLeish, the Librarian of Congress included it in a public exhibition entitled: "Faith and Freedom."

Magee's handwritten manuscript of "High Flight" (Public Domain)

In mid-September, John was assigned to the newly-formed Number 412 RCAF Fighter Squadron, based at Digby, Lincolnshire. He flew several convoy patrols escorting bombers to occupied France. On one of those missions, he encountered severe flak and Luftwaffe fighter attacks. John was the sole survivor of his fighter section. The other three pilots in his section were shot down and killed. 

John's final flight:

On December 11, 1941, John was participating in a flight training exercise conducted during foggy, wintry weather. As he was descending at high speed through a dense cloud, his Spitfire hit another aircraft. John succeeded in pushing back the canopy and bailing out, but he was so low, his parachute didn’t have enough time to fully open.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr. was buried in the graveyard of Holy Cross Church in Lincolnshire. The first and last lines of his poem “High Flight” are inscribed on his headstone.

Below is the entire poem:

High Flight

by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

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 ever 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.

Author's Note: My uncle Gordon B. Dodge flew a B-17 bomber on 35 missions during WWII. He loved this poem.


Mary Dodge Allen is the winner of a 2022 Christian Indie Award, a 2022 Angel Book Award, and two Royal Palm Literary Awards (Florida Writer's Association). She and her husband live in Central Florida, where she has served as a volunteer with the local police department. Her childhood in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, sparked her lifelong love of the outdoors. She has worked as a Teacher, Counselor and Social Worker. Her quirky sense of humor is energized by a passion for coffee and chocolate. She is a member of the Florida Writer's Association, American Christian Fiction Writers and Faith Hope and Love Christian Writers. 

Mary's novel: Hunt for a Hometown Killer won the 2022 Christian Indie Award, First Place - Mystery/Suspense; and the 2022 Angel Book Award - Mystery/Suspense.

Click the link below to buy Hunt for a Hometown Killer at

Link to Mary's Spotlight Interview:  Mary Dodge Allen Author Spotlight EA Books


  1. Thank you for posting today. This is a wonderful poem, and it's nice to hear about the author.

  2. Hi Connie, I love this poem and have memorized it. It truly captures the freedom of flying.