I wanted to share a poem that I first heard when I was a little girl growing up in Kansas. Back in those days, before the advent of 24hour television the stations would sign off the air around midnight. One particular station used to to play a short video of a fighter jet, with a narration of this poem. I heard it many, many times, as even back then I was somewhat of a night person. When I first heard it I thought it was quite beautiful, but it would not be until many years later that I would recall it again and understand its significance.
I had the opportunity when I was a young marine stationed in Twenty Nine Palms California to join the base sponsored soaring club. I was in radio technician school at the time and was very bored. No car, little money, and I wasn't much on drinking, yeah a Marine who didn't drink much, go figure.
I didn't really understand the poem until the day that I first soloed a sailplane there in the California desert. Our club used a tow plane to take the glider to an altitude of about 3,000 AGL when we released. Following another airplane in formation is not an easy task, ask any pilot, but following one to keep a towline taught, without causing the towplane pilot to struggle is even harder, and here I was a novice at this, talk about butterflies. So I manged to take off, without crashing both of us on take off, and had successfully flown for a few minutes without passing out.
Now here I was about to enter the point where I had to decide to land or try to find a thermal to give me more time in the air when my right wing suddenly bumped high in to the air. Nervous is so inadequate a word to describe the feeling you get the first time you solo in an airplane, let alone in a sail plane. You only get one landing chance in a sailplane, smile. Even as a beginning sailplane pilot I knew that I had just passed through the edge of a thermal. A thermal is a column of heated air that rises from the desert floor that sailplane pilots use to gain altitude, and in turn extend their flying time, and enables them to travel great distances by "hopping" from thermal to thermal.
I attempted to turn and "chase the thermal" and was doing a very poor job, when I looked up and saw a group of, what I later learned were buzzards circling above me. I followed them as best I could by banking my wings trying to stay below them. I figured their instrumentation was much more sensitive than mine! When I first felt the bump I was at an altitude of about 1200 feet AGL (Above Ground Level). When the buzzards finally broke away, and I continued my ascent, I glanced at my watch and noticed it had been about 15 minutes since my first encounter with the birds. I was now at 12,000 feet AGL and the thermal was dissappating. The temperature on the desert floor was approaching 90 but there at 12,000 feet I was cold!
So there I was flying at over 12,000 feet and heard the sound of an airplane approaching, or so I thought. Ok panic time! I looked left, right, forward, and backwards, no plane, where could it be???? Then I remembered I was in a 3 dimensional space so I looked up and then down, and there it was! It was the towplane taking off from the runway with another plane in tow 12,000 feet below! Ok time to calm down again!
The silence and calm that surrounds you in a sail plane are undiscribeable, and It was at that point, when I calmed down again that I recalled the poem I had heard so many years ago as a little girl, and I smiled, for now I know what John Gillespie Magee Jr. knew then, and so many others knew before and after him.
I hope you enjoy it.
“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’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
-Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
John Gissespie Magee, Jr. RCAF
9 June 1922 – 11 December 1941
John G. Magee Jr was a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot who died tragically shortly after he finished this poem while serving with the RCAF. He was an American pilot who joined the RCAF before America joined the war. He died in a mid-air collision over England. His talent is certainly missed!