Poetry Friday: Aviation Poems

by Chuck Stanley

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Aviation has a history of poets, some great, some not so much. Poems about flying go back into history, but out of World War One, “The War to End All Wars,” truly great poems began to emerge. Some, such as “The Poor Aviator Lay Dying,” came from mess halls and ready rooms. In those places, a mixture of fear and grief was dealt with through verse and song. The verses below appeared on both sides of the lines, in different languages. The same poem was adapted to other services, such as navy, submarine service, and merchant marine. It reappeared during World War Two, with verses adapted to the times and machines. I believe the version below is the original one, probably first sung in 1914 around a tinkly piano in some unknown British or French aerodrome.

This is sometimes titled, “The Bold Aviator Lay Dying.” Obviously, the original author is unknown.

A POOR AVIATOR LAY DYING
Sung to the tune: “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”

A poor aviator lay dying
At the end of a bright summer’s day
His comrades had gathered about him
To carry his fragments away

The airplane was piled on his wishbone
His Hotchkiss was wrapped round his head
He wore a spark-plug on each elbow
‘Twas plain he would shortly be dead

He spit out a valve and a gasket
And stirred in the sump where he lay
And then to his wondering comrades
These brave parting words he did say

“Take the magneto out of my stomach,
And the butterfly valve off my neck,
Extract from my liver the crankshaft,
There are lots of good parts in this wreck”

“Take the manifold out of my larynx,
And the cylinders out of my brain,
Take the piston rods out of my kidneys,
And assemble the engine again.”

More verses were added by unknown authors, but many of the added verses detract from the original song.

The poem/song was featured in The Young Indiana Jones.

Patrick J. Phillips wrote a number of great poems and stories. My favorite, and in my personal opinion, his greatest poem is Flyer’s Prayer.

Flyer’s Prayer

by Patrick J. Phillips

When this life I’m in is done,
And at the gates I stand,
My hope is that I answer all
His questions on command.

I doubt He’ll ask me of my fame,
Or all the things I knew, Instead,
He’ll ask of rainbows sent
On rainy days I flew.

The hours logged, the status reached,
The ratings will not matter.
He’ll ask me if I saw the rays
And how He made them scatter.

Or what about the droplets clear,
I spread across your screen?
And did you see the twinkling eyes.
If student pilots keen?

The way your heart jumped in your chest,
That special solo day-
Did you take time to thank the one
Who fell along the way?

Remember how the runway lights
Looked one night long ago
When you were lost and found your way,
And how-you still don’t know?

How fast, how far, how much, how high?
He’ll ask me not these things
But did I take the time to watch
The Moonbeams wash my wings?

And did you see the patchwork fields
And mountains I did mould;
The mirrored lakes and velvet hills,
Of these did I behold?

The wind he flung along my wings,
On final almost stalled.
And did I know I it was His name,
That I so fearfully called?

And when the goals are reached at last,
When all the flying’s done,
I’ll answer Him with no regret-
Indeed, I had some fun.

So when these things are asked of me,
And I can reach no higher,
My prayer this day – His hand extends
To welcome home a Flyer.

When a pilot dies, they have “flown west.” At ceremonies where there is a an overflight, four airplanes fly in ‘finger four’ formation. As the flight passes overhead, the third plane (ring finger) pulls up out of formation and turns West, symbolic of flying toward the setting sun.

TWA Captain Michael J. Larkin wrote Flying West about 1995.  It is often read at the funeral of pilots.

Flying West

by Michael J. Larkin

I hope there’s a place, way up in the sky
Where pilots can go when they have to die.
A place where a guy could buy a cold beer
For a friend and a comrade whose memory is dear.

A place where no doctor or lawyer could tread,
Nor a management-type would e’ler be caught dead!
Just a quaint little place, kind of dark, full of smoke,
Where they like to sing loud, and love a good joke.
The kind of a place that a lady could go
And feel safe and secure by the men she would know.

There must be a place where old pilots go,
When their wings become heavy, when their airspeed gets low,
Where the whiskey is old, and the women are young,
And songs about flying and dying are sung.

Where you’d see all the fellows who’d ‘flown west’ before,
And they’d call out your name, as you came through the door,
Who would buy you a drink, if your thirst should be bad,
And relate to the others, “He was quite a good lad!”

And there, through the mist, you’d spot an old guy
You had not seen in years, though he’d taught you to fly.
He’d nod his old head, and grin ear to ear
And say, “Welcome, my Son, I’m proud that you’re here!
For this is the place where true flyers come
When the battles are over, and the wars have been won.
They’ve come here at last, to be safe and alone,

From the government clerk, and the management clone;
Politicians and lawyers, the Feds, and the noise,
Where all hours are happy, and these good ol’ boys
Can relax with a cool one, and a well deserved rest!
This is Heaven, my Son. You’ve passed your last test!”

My family has instructions to read this at the service when I have flown west. In fact, there is a granite memorial bench which is blank at the moment. When the time comes for an inscription to be carved on it, it will read, “He is not here, he has Flown West.”

Finally, what is considered the best and greatest aviation poem of all time. It was written by RAF John Gillespie Magee, Jr. He was an American. Shortly before his death, he wrote to his parents in Washington, DC. In the letter he enclosed a poem. He told his parents he started the poem at 30,000 feet, and finished it when he was back on the ground. Magee was testing a Spitfire Mark V when he had a midair collision with another aircraft. A farmer who saw the incident told investigators he saw the Spitfire pilot slide his canopy back and stand up in the cockpit. He was too close to the ground for his parachute to open. John G. Magee, Jr. was 19 years old when he died on 11 December 1941.

High Flight

by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

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 ever 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.

If you have a favorite poem about flying or aviators, please share it in the comments.

About Chuck Stanley

Dr. Charlton (Chuck) Stanley is a board certified forensic psychologist, with interests in aviation psychology, peace officer selection and training, ethics and communication skills.
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3 Responses to Poetry Friday: Aviation Poems

  1. Will There Be A Tomorrow was written by Col. Dick Jonas, Vietnam fighter pilot and musician. The song has a haunting poignancy, much like some of the great poems of WW1. It was one of the songs compiled by cultural anthropologist Dr. Lydia Fish in her anthology, In Country: Folk Songs of Americans in the Vietnam War.

  2. bigfatmike says:

    I had to google to find this. But my recollection is that this and many additional verses, slightly modified to refer to the B-24 Liberator, appeared in a well known WWII novel – could it be Catch 22?

    As poetry this may not rise to the level of some of your examples. But I bet that there are still a lot of airmen who remember, have recited or have scrawled verses this this on various walls around the world.

    Fortress Blues

    Why did I join the Air Corps?
    Mother, dear Mother, knew best.
    Here I lie ‘neath the wreckage,
    A Fortress all over my chest.

    If you ever lose an engine,
    And you don’t know which way to turn,
    Just reach right up on the dashboard,
    Push the button marked spin, crash and burn!

    The Fort is a very fine airplane
    Constructed of rivets and tin,
    With a top speed of over 100,
    The ship with a headwind built in.

    If you ever run into ack-ack,
    Or a Messerschmidt makes a good pass,
    Just pick up your chute and start walking;
    To hell with the crew, let ’em crash.

    Why did I join the Air Corps?
    Mother, dear Mother, knew best.
    Here I lie ‘neath the wreckage,
    A Fortress all over my chest.

  3. rafflaw says:

    Great stuff Chuck!

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