airscape has a long-standing tension with poetry. I like it, but I know a lot of other people like it less. And so I restrain myself.
The following clip is simply too good to miss though. And while the star of the show is undoubtedly the English Electric Lightning, Hawker Hunters and Slingsby Swallow sailplanes also feature. There’s also a wonderful PoV sequence of a first solo flight in the erstwhile Hunting Jet Provost – which will resonate with everyone who’s ever gone solo.
And even if you can’t watch it all, do stick around for the scorching Lightning landing at 11’30”.
Slipping the surly bonds of – prose
In case you’d like to keep or share them, the quotes in the film (that I’ve been able to trace) are by:
Philip Wills (1907 – 1978)
Philip Aubrey Wills bought his first airplane, a De Havilland Gypsy Moth, in 1928 and began gliding in 1933. He broke numerous gliding records before World War Two, before joining the Air Transport Auxiliary where he rose to Second In Command. He continued to glide competitively after the war, representing Britain consistently between 1952 and 1958 and chairing the BGA for 19 years.
Where no birds fly
My wings have ridden the silken morn,
They have patterned the silent and sunlit sky,
Under Cancer and under Capricorn,
They have flown where no birds fly.
My wings have covered the width of the world,
O’er the tapestried earth , the shot-silk of the sea,
O’er the conquered mountains , cloud-pennants unfurled,
They have whispered their song : “You are free! You are free!”
K.C. Gandar Dower (1908 – 1944)
Kenneth Gandar Dower was a very British aristocrat – sportsman, aviator, writer, explorer and war correspondent. Before World War Two, he tried to establish cheetah racing as a sport in England. When the British Army assaulted Madagascar in 1942 he – as official war correspondent – hit the beach wearing a bowler hat, and carrying a camera and typewriter. Luckily the landings were unopposed. He died in 1944, when his ship was sunk off the Maldives by a Japanese submarine.
from Amateur Adventure, 1934
East to the dawn and southward to the sun
Borne on aloft by man’s great gift of wings
To legend lands that make the pulses run
And towns that leap with names of ancient kings.
Remote beyond the mosques of old ‘Stanbul
Are wastes, men say, that have a magic still
Where night winds range the desert
breathing cool slow life on blinded eye, and brain, and will.
E. Vine Hall ( – )
Edgar Vine Hall is something of an enigma to me. No doubt someone knows more – but he appears to have been a well-known author, respected poet, and (I think) Cambridge academic during the first half of the 20th Century. He published at least two other aviation poems in 1916, The First Flight about a dawn patrol and Song of the Airman Death. Unfortunately his reputation didn’t outlast him.
What thoughts are his in the high air?
What hazard does his spirit dare?
By what mystic right
Does he approach the heavens’ height?
By the mazes of what solemn dance
Does he to the still stars glance?
Exalted above Earth he flies,
In the strange silence of the skies.
By steep steps he soars
To gaze upon the golden doors
If so he may trace the springs of light
And the pure place of spirits.
Brian Young (1918 – 1992)
Born in South Africa, Young wrote the following poem while an RAF Air Cadet at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell in 1938 – the year he graduated with the Sword of Honour. He would be shot down and badly wounded on May 13th, 1940 during the Battle of France. He eventually returned to service in 1942, flying Short Sunderland convoy patrols over the Atlantic, and rose to the rank of Air Vice Marshall before retiring in 1973.
How can they know the joy to be alive
Who have not flown?
To loop and spin and roll and climb and dive,
The very sky one’s own.
The urge of power while engines race,
The sting of speed,
The rude winds’ buffet on one’s face,
To live indeed.
How can they know the grandeur of the sky,
The earth below,
The restless sea, the waves that break and die
With ceaseless ebb and flow;
The morning sun on drifting clouds,
And rolling downs –
And valley mist that shrouds
The chimneyed towns.
So long has puny man to earth been chained
Who now is free,
And with the conquest of the air has gained
A glorious liberty.
How splendid is this gift He gave
On high to roam,
The sun a friend, the earth a slave,
The heavens home.
John Gillespie Magee, Jr., (1917 – 1941)
And, of course – the celebrated Canadian, who should need no introduction here…
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 windswept 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.
Please feel free to send me your own favourites. Perhaps we’ll get a follow-up post out of it!