Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Comrades of the Clouds ; Oh, I Have Slipped the Surly Bonds of Earthand Danced the Skies on Laughter- Silvered Wings

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Comrades of the Clouds ; Oh, I Have Slipped the Surly Bonds of Earthand Danced the Skies on Laughter- Silvered Wings

Article excerpt

Few pilots haven't read or heard these lines by John Gillespie Magee Jr., written when he was still a teenager training to fly Spitfires in Britain in 1941. To many, the short poem called "High Flight" expresses as well as words can the grace and wonder of flying:

Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred thingsyou have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swunghigh in the sunlit silence....

There are better writers, or at least those who fly and write about it with more sophistication and depth of experience. Beryl Markham, Antoine de St. Exupry, Charles Lindbergh, Richard Bach in his early books about barnstorming and flying a fighter through thunderstorms at night over Europe in the 1950s.

But in Magee's case, the youth of this flier and writer, his exuberance and awe are things all fliers feel on those days when everything goes right: when the aircraft is performing well and the pilot is at the top of his form, maneuvering smoothly and anticipating rather than reacting to things. When the light is just so, and the clouds provide substance, without being a hindrance or a danger.

It's hard to think of an activity as challenging and fulfilling as flying a small aircraft. To do so alone, and successfully, requires enormous concentration and training. One must merge exactitude with intuition, taking everything one has learned from others and from prior experience and combining it with seat-of-the- pants decisions that precede conscious thought.

"Where is there a pilot foolhardy enough to ignore his hunches?" Markham wrote in "West With the Night" (1942). "I am not one. I could never tell where inspiration begins and impulse leaves off. I suppose the answer is in the outcome. If your hunch proves a good one, you were inspired; if it proves bad, you are guilty of yielding to thoughtless impulse."

The "outcome" Markham writes about is obvious in flying, whether it's an aerobatic maneuver or a crosswind landing. Everyone - especially the pilot - knows how things went. This, too, is one of flying's attractions. There is an immediacy that pushes off contemplation until after one is safely on the ground. …

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