JOHN MAGEE Jr. WROTE the pilot’s anthem “High Flight” at nineteen in 1941. An American serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force, he composed much of the poem in his head during a test flight. “It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed,” said Magee, who began the poem with “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,” and ended it, 13 lines later, with, “Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
Three months later, Magee was killed when his Spitfire plane collided with another aircraft over England. The pilot leaped from the burning plane but perished when his parachute failed to open.
“High Flight” was famously referenced in a speech written by Peggy Noonan and spoken by President Regan after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986; all seven passengers perished. “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God,’” Reagan said.