Finding Magee - In search of the High Flight Poet

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Photo Vince Chien

For me, ‘inspiration’ has come in the form of sights, sounds and feelings that have combined in unforgettable moments.  These were experiences that touched my emotions, lifted my mind and guided me.  Two exceptional moments of inspiration stand out in my memory - and they have now come together in the form of a Vintage Wings project: the restoration of our Harvard.

Like many of the enthusiasts at Vintage Wings, I have longed to fly and have been fascinated with airplanes for as long as I can remember.  Some of my earliest memories are of the annual pilgrimages to the Toronto waterfront to watch the CNE Airshow. It was there, as a fifteen year old air cadet, that I first heard John Gillespie Magee’s poem High Flight - while watching Oscar Boesch fly his incredible sailplane aerobatics. For a teenager with a burning desire to fly, there could be no greater inspiration than hearing High Flight, while watching Oscar Boesch fly. 

Airshows had always been noisy affairs with thundering jets and roaring piston engines. But Oscar Boesch’s presentation was completely different. It was serene. This was silent flight – accompanied by gentle music and the reading of Magee’s poem. I stood in awe, watching the exquisite airborne choreography - the beautiful words of the poem and the graceful flight of the sailplane were in perfect harmony.  With effortless elegance, Boesch’s sailplane “danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…”  I squinted into the dazzling sunlight, watching his seemingly effortless loops and rolls as the narrator recited the poem…  “Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth…-and done a hundred things you have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung; High in the sunlit silence…”.

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An inspiration; Oscar Boesch performed a graceful display of sailplane aerobatics – accompanied by a reading of John Gillespie Magee’s High Flight.  Boesch’s airshow career spanned three decades; he performed more than 600 airshows and was the subject of an IMAX film: Silent Sky.  Photo courtesy Oscar Boesch

Twenty-five years later, I was an airline Captain and simulator instructor.  But I was still an unabashed airplane fanatic and I still thoroughly enjoyed airshows. On a perfect summer evening, I found myself on the ramp at Trenton, watching a rehearsal for the next day’s show.  High above, a formation of three snub-nosed Harvards came into view; the unmistakable snarl of their engines proudly announcing their arrival.  Like everyone else watching this airshow practice, I delighted in the meticulous precision of their flight.  But to me, this formation was much more than a demonstration of superb stick and rudder skills.  There was tremendous symbolism here as once again, the roar and rumble of these ancient trainers echoed over this historic BCATP airfield.

As the formation came by for another pass, they pulled up into a loop.  I was struck by the sheer beauty and perfection; the elegance and grace of the manoeuvre, the shimmering reflection of the sunlight on the wings; and that inimitable growl – a rich sound that drifted down from above and resonated in my core.  In that instant, gazing skyward, I knew that I needed to fly a Harvard.  This would not be just for the sake of putting another interesting airplane type in my log book; it would not be just to experience the fun of flying a powerful, radial-engined brute.  For me, this was to be a trip through time; a chance to walk in the footsteps of the Second World War pilots – to whom we owe so much. 

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With elegance and precision, the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team continues to astound crowds around North America. Team pilots Pete Spence, Kent Beckham and Dave Hewitt also fly with Vintage Wings.  Pete and Kent are checked out on the Spitfire while Dave flies the Hurricane. Photo Vince Chien

The men who learned to fly on the Harvard went on to make history.  We were honoured and delighted to have had some of these veterans and their families as special guests of Vintage Wings.  They are men like James ‘Stocky’ Edwards, Canada’s highest scoring living ace. Stocky earned his wings on Harvards at No. 11 SFTS (Service Flying Training School) in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, and then went on to gain distinction flying Kittyhawks in the North African desert.  They are men like the late Charley Fox, who learned to fly on Harvards, instructed on Harvards at No 6 SFTS in Dunnville, Ontario – and then went on to fly Spitfires with 412 Squadron, where he flew three missions on D-Day.  They are men like Bill McRae, who earned his wings on Harvards at No. 1 SFTS in Borden and then endured years of frustrating behind-the-scenes service before he achieved his goal of getting into the fight; on D-Day, Bill also flew three sorties over Juno Beach.

John Gillespie Magee was another young man who flew Harvards on his way to becoming a fighter pilot.  He was an American who volunteered to join the RCAF before the United States entered the conflict.  Magee trained on Harvards at No. 2 SFTS in Ottawa (Uplands) and then flew Spitfires with 412 Squadron.  He died only a few months after he received his pilot’s wings; but not before he wrote some of the most beautiful and enduring words ever written about flight. 

There has never been another airplane quite like the Harvard.  During the Second World War and in the years that followed, the Harvard - and related variants - established an unparalleled record.  More than 15,000 of these trainers were built and several hundred thousand pilots, from more than thirty countries, were taught to fly on these once-common aircraft.  Here in Canada, during the heyday of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), this aircraft had a critical role; all of the pilots that went on to fly fighters and other single engine aircraft earned their “wings” on Harvards. 

The aircraft that we in Canada and in Britain think of as the Harvard has had many versions and has been known by many (sometimes confusing) names.  All of these aircraft evolved from North American Aviation’s NA-16 prototype.  This open cockpit, fixed-gear, fabric covered aircraft was built in 1935.  The first major production model for the U.S. Army Air Corps was the BT-9 – which was known in the Commonwealth as the “Yale.”  The BT-9 had an enclosed cockpit, but preserved the prototype’s fixed landing gear.  The BC-1 (Basic Combat aircraft) – or Harvard Mk 1 – introduced retractable landing gear and a hydraulic system.  Later versions were known as the AT-6 (Advanced Trainer).  After the war, the newly established U.S. Air Force renamed it the T-6.  The American Navy called theirs an “SNJ”; and the Australians called their version the “Wirraway”.  Pressed into service as a fighter, one Wirraway, now preserved at the Australian War Memorial, even managed to shoot down a Japanese Zero. Call it what you will; as Shakespeare said, “a rose by any other name…”

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Mk 1 Harvard of the Central Flying School undergoing line maintenance at Trenton.   Visible in the background is Lockheed 10, No. 1526, one of the Trans Canada Airlines aircraft that was pressed into RCAF service during 1939. Photo via
Bryan Nelson, Canadian Aeronautical Preservation Association

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These two Mk 1 Harvards were taken on strength by the RCAF in 1939 and served with the Central Flying School in Trenton.  As the war progressed and more modern Mk 2 Harvards became available, the obsolete Mk 1 Harvards were relegated for use as instructional airframes. Photo via Bryan Nelson, Canadian Aeronautical Preservation Association

Without doubt, getting checked out in the Harvard has been the most challenging, fulfilling – and definitely most fun - flying experience that I have ever had.  And now, as the Aircraft Manager on the Vintage Wings Harvard (CF-ROA), I have the privilege of telling the stories of these tremendous airplanes – and the wonderful men who flew them.  Our goal is to share the aircraft in the Vintage Wings collection with the public so that others can understand and appreciate Canada’s unique aviation history.  We constantly look for ways to reach out to the public: website articles, airshows, appearances as guest speakers and various displays.  Ironically, a recent mishap provided a unique opportunity for us to tell several important stories – and hopefully to inspire others.

Last June, the Harvard was on display at the Canadian Forces Day and Air Show at CFB Borden.  It was parked next to the snow fence that held back the crowd of spectators – including many young families – who were in attendance.  Somehow, a large radio-controlled model of the CF-105 Avro Arrow ended up heading towards the crowd and crashed into the tail of the Harvard.  The model was destroyed on impact and caused considerable damage to the Harvard.  While everyone was sad to see the damage to the Harvard, we knew that this incident could have been far worse; the Harvard shielded the spectators, many of whom could have been seriously injured had it not been there.

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A blessing in disguise?  Last June, the Harvard was on display at the Canadian Forces Day and Air Show at CFB Borden.  Somehow, a large radio-controlled model of the CF-105 Avro Arrow ended up heading towards the crowd and crashed into the tail of the Harvard. 

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Splash one Arrow. The Harvard effectively shielded the crowd – many of whom could have been injured.  The damage to the aircraft prompted its refurbishment and also provided an opportunity for new markings to be applied.

Temporary repairs and some imaginative patching allowed the Harvard to complete last summer’s flying schedule.  But in the fall, it went in for major refurbishing.  The aircraft was completely stripped, considerable body-work was done and then she was repainted.  The choice of markings is important; these help us to explain the history of the aircraft and the stories of those that flew them.  Originally, it was decided to repaint the aircraft in its original RCAF markings with aircraft serial number 20451.  These were the markings in which this Mk 4 Harvard served during its service career at RCAF Stations Centralia, Rockcliffe and Moose Jaw. Here the aircraft trained the pilots that would serve in NATO and NORAD, defending Canada during the Cold War. This story and the efforts of those airmen are very important.  However there were stories about the Second World War – and especially the BCATP - that we wanted to tell with the Harvard.

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) was one of Canada’s most important contributions to the Second World War. This agreement between Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, resulted in the training of over 130,000 aircrew in Canada. In fact, nearly half of the Commonwealth air forces pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, air gunners, wireless operators and flight engineers were trained here in Canada.  The BCATP was a massive wartime undertaking that brought prominence to Canada. It included more than 107 schools and 184 other supporting units, which were located throughout the Dominion. In recognition of this tremendous endeavour, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to Canada as "the Aerodrome of Democracy.” By painting our Harvard in the markings of an aircraft that had served in the BCATP, we could help chronicle this significant part of Canada’s aviation history.

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Refuelling on a snowy ramp. Several features distinguish this Harvard as a Mk 1:  the winter “nose muffs”, the short exhaust stack and the short rudder.  Photo via Bryan Nelson, Canadian Aeronautical Preservation Association

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A wartime line up of Mk 2 Harvards at No. 2 Service Flying Training School at Uplands in Ottawa. The Harvard at centre left with the two mechanics standing on the left wing is serial No. 3042, another of the 12 Harvards flown by John Magee. Photo via Bryan Nelson, Canadian Aeronautical Preservation Association


The summer Wings Parade at No, 2 SFTS Uplands in Ottawa. In the foreground is a film crew from Warner Bros. shooting the parade for the movie Captains of the Clouds.  Magee wrote to his parents about this movie:  “This I think is a film made at Uplands in which I took part.  (formation, etc.)”  In the lineup of Harvards in the background we found two with Buzz Numbers 42 and 44, so perhaps 43 is also in there in the back rows. One of two fabulous photographs provided to us by Rudy Mauro

We also wanted to convey the splendour of flight. In his poem High Flight, John Gillespie Magee captured the beauty, joy and elation of flying as no-one else has.  In a letter to his parents, Magee wrote:  “I am enclosing a verse that I wrote the other day.  It started at 30,000 feet and was finished soon after I landed.  I thought that it might interest you.” At the bottom of the letter he wrote “P.T.O for ditty.”  (Please Turn Over for what he called a “ditty.”) After his death, Magee’s parents donated the poem to the American Library of Congress, where it was included it in an exhibition of poems called 'Faith and Freedom' in February 1942. 

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High Flight is one of the most beautiful and enduring poems ever written about flying.  This is the original version, written on the back of a letter that Magee sent to his parents.  Shortly after his death, Magee’s parents gave the letter to the Library of Congress, where it remains.  Photo via Ray Hass  

From its humble origins on the back of a letter, Magee’s “ditty” has become one of the best known and most enduring poems ever written about flying.  High Flight is ubiquitous; it appears in hangars, briefing rooms and other aviation facilities around the world.  Portions of this poem have found their way into films, televisions shows and into other pieces of literature.  Astronauts have carried copies of it into space and President Ronald Reagan quoted the poem when he paid tribute to the astronauts who died in the space shuttle Challenger disaster.

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The flight that inspired the poem…  A page from Magee's log book with an entry that coincides with Magee's note to his parents. In the letter to his parents, Magee wrote:  “I am enclosing a verse that I wrote the other day.  It started at 30,000 feet and was finished soon after I landed.  I thought that it might interest you.”    His logbook entry on August 18, 1941, is the official record. Logbook pages via Ray Haas

The Harvard’s role in the BCATP and its significance to the life of John Gillespie Magee compelled us to tell these stories. By applying the markings of a Harvard flown by Magee, we would have a valuable tool that would make an important part of Canada’s aviation history come alive. In addition, the fact that No. 2 SFTS was based at Uplands - only a few miles from our Gatineau hangar - was also significant. We believed this would provide a local connection that would be especially important to the many school children who visit the collection. 

There were other details that we also considered. Our Harvard is a Mk 4 that was built in 1952. The wartime Mk 2 Harvards that served in the BCATP were slightly different. The major external differences are additional vertical canopy frames on the Mk 2 and an ADF antenna on the Mk 4. Otherwise, externally the aircraft appear virtually identical. There are other minor internal differences (hydraulic system, electrical system, etc) that are not very evident.  We took these facts – and the opinions of those that thought these differences were important – into consideration. Ultimately, we concluded that paying tribute to our wartime veterans and telling the story of the BCATP superseded these comparatively minor technical details. We believe that there were inspirational stories that needed to be told.

On a snowy night in December, the idea was pitched to Vintage Wings Founder and President, Mike Potter, for his approval. Weighing the pros and cons, Mike decided:  our Harvard would now be painted in the markings of a No. 2 SFTS aircraft that John Gillespie Magee flew during his training.  Tim Leslie (VWoC Chief of Operations) happily proclaimed the aircraft to be “The High Flight Harvard”.  With the decision made, there was lots that we needed to know - and lots of work to do. 

Vintage Wings is very fortunate in having a huge number of supporters; these include our volunteers and many others – who maintain contact with us through our website and email. Throughout the year, we host tours in the hangar; thousands attend our Open House events and there are now more than 2400 people – from around the world – who subscribe to Vintage News. Many of these supporters are very knowledgeable about aviation history and are happy to share their insights. When we let it be known that we were searching for the markings of No. 2 SFTS Harvard flown by John Gillespie Magee, the feedback was tremendous.

One of the most valuable contributions to this effort came from Mr. Ray Haas. Ray has done extensive research into the life of John Gillespie Magee and is the President of High Flight Productions. Ray provided Vintage Wings with electronic copies of Magee’s log book and of the letter (containing the poem) that he sent to his parents. These were incredible discoveries. With the copies of the log book, we were able to trace the serial numbers of the twelve Harvards flown by Magee during his flight training at Uplands.  Now we needed photos of these aircraft to use as references.

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John Magee’s logbook chronicles his complete flight history – from elementary training on Fleet Finches in St. Catharines right though to flying Spitfires operationally with 412 Squadron.  Here we can see that Magee flew Harvard serial number 2866 on three occasions:  May 23, 1941 (2 flights) and May 24, 1941 (1 flight).    Our thanks to Ray Haas for this valuable document.

The quest for reference photos was long and sometimes frustrating. Vintage Wings volunteers played a key role. Kent Beckham (“Mr. Harvard”) was the source of some great information and many valuable contacts. Steve McKenzie and Pierre Lapprand put the word out via internet forums.  Jay Hunt searched his references. Don MacNeil and Dave Hadfield as well as Canadian Aviation Historical Society President Tim Dubé, scoured the National Archives. Greg Burnard from the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association lent his support; as did Doug MacPhail and Dave Fletcher, the two authors of Harvard! (A terrific book!) Ultimately, we made contact with Benno Goethals, a member of the Royal Netherlands Air Force Historical Flight. Benno has been fascinated with Harvards since 1969.  As a youngster, he helped his father maintain a number of former RNLAF Harvards that had been sold to a private company. Over the years, Benno has collected “anything Harvard”.  In his extensive collection, Benno was able to find a photo of aircraft serial number 2866. This aircraft was flown by John Gillespie Magee on May 23, 1941 (2 flights) and May 24, 1941 (1 flight). We now had documentation and an excellent reference for our markings.

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A wartime image of a No. 2 SFTS Harvard: aircraft serial number 2866 flying over the Ottawa Valley.  This exceptional side-on image allowed us to make accurate measurements for the remarking of our Harvard.  Photo via Benno Goethals

The refurbishment of the Harvard involved the efforts of many experts. Angela Gagnon, Paul Tremblay, Andre Laviolette and the other members of the Vintage Wings Maintenance Team worked tirelessly under the leadership of Maintenance Manager, Andrej Janik. Korrey Foissey and his team at Kolorfast in Smiths Falls did a terrific job of stripping the old paint, repairing surface imperfections and then applying the aircraft’s flawless yellow and black paint scheme. Many other tasks were accomplished to restore the aircraft to a pristine state. Skillful body work was done by Oscar Verdugo, Jose Bardi and Eden Peruzovic. . Many other tasks needed to be done. The propeller was removed and sent for overhaul; the wing attachment points were subjected to non-destructive testing and over 140 wing attachment bolts were replaced; work was done on the electrical system; the ELT was recertified and the landing gear was swung. With these, and countless other tasks complete, the aircraft’s Annual Inspection was signed off and the Harvard was once again available for us to fly – and to have its new markings applied.

While the Harvard’s brilliant trainer yellow and satin black anti-glare panel were applied with paint; the roundels, serial numbers and large ‘buzz number’ were applied with vinyl decals.  This was the work of our brilliant graphics expert – and Manager of Marketing and Communications – Dave O’Malley.  Dave is a huge BCATP enthusiast and was absolutely captivated by this project.  In addition to his work on the stunning markings that now adorn the aircraft, Dave’s other efforts, especially his work coordinating our researchers, was invaluable in bringing the High Flight Harvard to life. 

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Harvard aircraft manager Rob Kostecka (R) and  Dave O'Malley measure up the High Flight Harvard for her new clothes. Photo: Peter Handley

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Referring to a photo of a Wings Parade at No. 2 SFTS in the summer of 1941 where Magee was trained, O'Malley and Kostecka discuss the finer points of roundel placement and type. Photo: Peter Handley

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A week later, after the markings are created and output onto a decal material known as ControlTac, Mike Potter and O'Malley attempt the application of the first decals.  Photo: Peter Handley

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Part of the application team, Blair Olson (L) and Rodney Groulx double team an underwing A-Type roundel. Photo: Peter Handley

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The end of a wonderful day’s flying… The High Flight Harvard sits quietly in the hangar – with her new markings in place.  As pilots clean off bug-strikes and wipe off oil, the end of a day’s flying is often a time of quiet reflection.   Photo: Pierre Lapprand

The point of all of this work was not merely to have an exceptional looking airplane (which she no doubt is).  Our objective with the Harvard – as with all of the aircraft in the Vintage Wings collection - is to share the aircraft with the public; using it as a tool to help us tell the stories of Canada’s passionate history of fight.  The High Flight Harvard will be seen at airshows, fly-in breakfasts, the Canada Aviation Museum and other events throughout the summer.  It will also be showcased during the many tours that take place in our hangar.  Through these activities Vintage Wings will tell the stories of the generation of Canadians who stood up against tyranny.  We will tell the stories of the flight instructors who toiled, in endless frustration, while they longed to join the fight overseas.  We will tell the stories of young men who learned to fly on Harvards, and then went on to make history.  Finally, we will tell the story of a John Gillespie Magee – a young man, who volunteered to serve, sacrificed his life and whose words have lived on to inspire generations of airmen.

Last night, just before leaving the hangar, I looked back (as I always do) for one final glimpse of the aircraft.  That Harvard sat there, gleaming, resplendent in her new markings. I paused for a moment to reflect, thinking about the past and the future.  I read the aircraft’s new name High Flight Harvard, written under the canopy, in elegant script.  Reading these words, I remembered the first time I heard the poem, and the inspiration that I felt.  I thought about the fun that I had earlier that day, flying aerobatics in the Harvard with my friend John Aitken.  Thinking about our loops and rolls, I remembered how years before, watching the Harvard formation in Trenton inspired me to make this ancient trainer a part of my life.  I thought about the veterans and the history that this airplane represents.  I thought about the team that had worked so hard and contributed so much to complete the restoration.  And I thought of the wonderful opportunities that we will have to share this magnificent airplane and tell her many stories.  Standing there, I felt incredibly privileged.  For me, this was another moment of inspiration.

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After soloing in the High Flight Harvard, Rob Kostecka poses with the newly marked beauty.  Photo by John Aitken

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A wonderful privilege; Rob Kostecka sits where John Magee and thousands of BCATP pilots sat - in the cockpit of a Harvard. Photo by John Aitken

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Bringing Magee’s words to life… Rob Erdos performs a flawless aileron roll in the High Flight Harvard over the Vintage Wings of Canada facility at the Gatineau Airport. A spectacular series of images captured by Vintage Wings volunteer, Richard Lawrence

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