Poem of the Month, October 2022

The following poem was reprinted frequently during World War II.  It is usually given the title, “The Airman’s Hymn.”  It was widely reprinted in American newspapers when it first appeared, but no author was identified.  According to one newspaper account, the poem was written by William Scott, a private in the Army Air Corps stationed at March Army Air Field at Riverside, California.  Scott evidently sent a copy of the poem to his sister, Babe Scott, who gave it to a local city editor to publish.  At the time, Miss Scott did not know that her brother had just been killed in an aircraft accident.  He was a passenger in an army aircraft, piloted by Lieutenant Richard F. Lorenz, which crashed in thick fog into the side of the Lick Observatory on Mount Palomar.  The crash occurred on 21 May 1939.  A copy of the poem was found in Scott’s pocket.  It was titled “A Pilot’s Lament.”  This poem has been modified by others as it has been reprinted. 

A Pilot’s Lament  

by William Scott   

When the last, long flight is over 
And the happy landing’s past, 
And my altimeter tells me 
The crackup’s come at last-- 

I’ll point her nose to the ceiling 
And I’ll give my crate the gun; 
I’ll open her up and let her zoom 
For the airport of the sun.  

There I’ll meet my fellow pilots
Now no longer flying low, 
As I stow my crate in the hangar 
On the field where flyers go.  

There we will fly forever with 
The Almighty flying boss, 
And ride all Heaven’s airways 
From Orion to the Cross.  

Note: Orion: the constellation Orion, which rides high in the summer nighttime skies in the northern hemisphere.  The Cross: the Southern Cross, a constellation visible only in the night skies of the southern hemisphere. 

Poem of the Month, September 2022

For the poem of the month for September, 2022, I am posting one of my poems. The subject of the poem is too familiar to need explanation or footnotes.

The Helicopters of Uvalde 

Before the incident, we would see the helicopters, 
one or two a day, outbound in the morning, inbound 
at sunset, following Highway 90, an easy navigational aid, 
across the flat south Texas plains.  We saw their whirling blades, 
their shining sides, and imagined the crew members chatting, 
telling jokes as they counted down the miles to and from Uvalde.  

But when we heard the news that afternoon, suddenly 
the sky was alive with helicopters, a steady hum of noise.  
We could see them heading west to the stricken city, 
nineteen children down, two teachers, killed by
an angry teen with an automatic rifle. 

First the hospital helicopters, landing hurriedly to carry bodies 
back to San Antonio in a nearly futile effort to save the children.  
We stood in our yard as they flew over, vainly visualizing 
the life-saving efforts as young lives slipped away  
one thousand feet above us.  

Soon the press helicopters passed overhead, carrying reporters 
and camera operators who gave us the grim and unimaginable details 
on the evening news, holding their microphones in front 
of the wounded school, telling us of continuous developments 
but nothing good: memorials, burials, recriminations.  

Then came the helicopters bearing the presidential seal, 
with airborne military escort, arriving in the morning and 
departing after the president and his wife had stood 
in the town square by the modest fountain nearly overwhelmed 
by the crosses, flowers, and grief of those lamenting 
what that one gun had done.

We saw them as they returned, Marine One leading 
with the backup bird immediately above and to the rear, 
on a straight course to Air Force One at Kelly Field.  
We imagined those aboard sitting in noisy silence 
flying away from the inexpressible sadness 
of the town’s disconsolate inhabitants.  

Now we see the usual helicopters, one or two a day, on their 
regular schedule, over in the morning, back in the afternoon, 
as if nothing had changed.  

Poem of the Month, August 2022

The poem of the month for August, 2022, is “Song of the Aviator,” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

“Song of the Aviator”

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

From the Detroit Free Press: “This poem, written by Mrs. Wilcox at the request of the late Lieutenant T. J. Kennedy, so far as is known has never been published.  It is here printed by courtesy of Mrs. Kennedy, mother of the Detroit aviator in whom Mrs. Wilcox took such deep interest—who received from the poet an autographed copy.”

Ella Wheeler Wilcox was a popular poet in the late 1880s; her two best-known collections of poetry were Poems of Passion and Poems of Pleasure.  She was in France in the summer of 1918 and met Kennedy when he was recovering from a flying accident. As far as is known, this is her only poem about aviation, written at Kennedy’s request in 1918.  She died in October of 1919, less than two weeks before this poem appeared in the Detroit Free Press on 9 November 1919.

Song of the Aviator

You may thrill with the speed of your thoroughbred steed, 
You may laugh with delight as you ride the ocean, 
You may rush afar in your touring car 
Leaping—sweeping by things that are creeping, 
But you will never know the joy of motion 
Till you rise up over the earth some day 
And soar like an eagle, away—away.  

High and higher above each spire, 
Till lost to sight is the tallest steeple; 
With the winds you chase in a valiant race, 
Looping—swooping, where mountains are grouping 
Hailing them comrades in place of people.  
Oh! vast is the rapture the bird man knows, 
As into the Ether he mounts and goes.  

He is over the sphere of human fear, 
He has come into touch with things supernal.  
At each man’s gate death stands a-wait 
And dying—flying were better than lying 
In sick beds crying for Life Eternal.  
Better to fly half way to God, 
Than to burrow too long like a worm in the sod.  

NOTE:  Lieutenant Thomas P. Kennedy was evidently killed while in pilot training at the U. S. Army Air Service flying school at Tours, France, in the summer of 1918. 

Poem of the Month, July 2022

The poem of the month this month is one of my poems. It describes one of my more interesting adventures when I was in pilot training in central Texas many years ago.


Dodging the Butte 

Early one morning, solo in my small training jet, 
practicing maneuvers in my assigned area west of Snyder, 
I decided to explore a cloud deck that was moving
slowly south, low above the surface of the flat west Texas plains.  
A thin layer, roads and fields visible beneath.  

I dipped a wing, pulled power back, 
dove through the thin edge of the gauzy cloud, 
banked left along a country road, 
followed it for a time, then pulled up  
through the cloud into the open skies above, 
a metal porpoise playing in a foam-filled sea.  

A second effort, farther west, through thicker cloud, 
the ground lost briefly from sight then visible again 
underneath the white layer, lots of room to spare 
as I rolled wings level, a hundred feet above its deserted surface, 
I might have been a rancher checking his fence line. 

Once again above the cloud, I sought a new section 
to explore.  Farther west, a cloud layer more thickly woven, 
one white bubble rising above the ground-covering blanket.  
I dipped the left wing in a shallow turn, banking to the west, 
easing into the whiteness, waiting for the ground to appear.  

A red light flashed past my right wing, cloud-shrouded, 
Attached to a tall tower, neon lights shining up from the ground, 
a blinking traffic light at a road intersection, not fifty feet 
beneath me, a gas station, restaurant, obscured in the cloudy 
morning darkness.  The road below vaguely visible 
through the dark gloom.  Ahead I see a dark object 
rising to a height above my flight level too high to pull over.
A solid rock butte standing up darkly in the grey cloud, 
Growing larger in my windscreen.  The road below 
angles to the right, past the object.  The road my guide, 
I follow it, the butte a black shadow now past my left wing 
as I pull up hoping for sky.  

Later, I checked my map.  
I had flown out of my training area, to a section where
the ground rose gradually.  My final dip through the solid cloud layer 
had taken me over a small Texas town, whose early rising residents 
had witnessed an early morning flyby 
from a young air force flyboy 
cruising past in exhilaration and fear 
westbound over Highway 180.  

Book Notes

Wolfgang Langewiesche, I’ll Take the High Road.  Harcourt Brace and Company, 1939. 

Wolfgang Langewiesche’s I’ll Take the High Road became a classic of aviation literature almost as soon as it was published.  It describes his experiences learning to fly in the late 1930s.  He tells us almost nothing about his life away from flying.  He was involved in education, first as a student at Columbia University in New York, and then as a teacher at Sarah Lawrence College.  All he tells us about him time away from airports is that he worked in order to earn money to pay for his flight instruction and cross-country flights.  According to his account, he lived to fly.  We never learn why this was so, but there is no doubt that it was so.  In addition to capturing the experience of flight well, his account shows what a lucky aviator he was; he could have killed himself at least three times. 

The book charts his path from student to licensed pilot, flying small, single-engine aircraft.  His narrative is exceptional for the details he provides about what it is like to fly (and even jump out of) an airplane.  This trait is evident in the chapter titled “The Mysterious Factor X”; although he never defines what he means by the “X factor,” I believe he is referring to thinking aeronautically, developing the sense that a pilot has to develop to anticipate what will happen next in flight, whether taking off, cruising, or descending for a landing.  Part of developing the X factor is becoming confident of the capabilities of the aircraft a pilot is flying as well as his or her ability to control the aircraft successfully.  This sense of confidence is necessary to avoid the fear of flying, or to be more exact, the fear of what might go wrong when you are in an airplane, especially a small, single-engine plane. 

His personal flight training program begins in Chicago, where he learns to fly in a “Travelair” (probably a Travel Air 4000, built in the late 1920s by Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, and Lloyd Stearman).  After he moves to New York, he flies a “Fleet.”  His third and final training stop is Al Bennett’s flying field near Princeton, New Jersey, where he develops his ability to fly a Piper Cub, the aircraft which he flies on his cross-country flights. 

Two of the most engaging chapters are “Knapsack of Salvation” and “Neurosis in Miniature,” both of which describe his sensations when he intentionally jumps out of an airplane wearing a parachute.  In “Knapsack,” he makes the jump in order to qualify as a stunt man at local airshows.  As he approaches the ground he sees a sturdy barbed wire fence in his path and mentally considers his options to avoid it.  Fortunately he misses the fence; if he had hit the fence, he probably would have been killed, but he considers this possibility only in passing.  In “Neurosis” he decides he wants to free fall through the air as long as he possibly can before deploying his parachute.  Again, he is incredibly lucky, as he waits almost too late to pull his rip cord.  His description of his sensations as he falls through space, especially in “Neurosis,” are detailed and comprehensive.  Although he was one of the first to “sky dive,” as we call it today, I doubt that there is a more accurate account of what it is physically like to fall a long distance through the air. 

Sandwiched between his parachute jump accounts is a chapter called “Flying Team,” in which he ventures on his first cross-country flights with an eager female pilot, Ellen.  Initially he is the navigator and she is the pilot on the outbound flights, and the roles are reversed on the return flights.  Flying out of Chicago, he and Ellen fly across the Midwest, to Minneapolis, Madison, Wisconsin, and other fields of similar range.  It is clear that the two of them develop a special working relationship (though he says not romantic), and he is horrified as he watches from the ground as she, flying solo, fails to pull out of an inverted spin: 

Half a turn later, horribly late, she began to recover.  She succeeded in stopping the turn and went into a straight dive, first nosing down at about seventy degrees, then vertically.  As if coming out of a loop. She was beginning to pull out right side up, but still pointing almost straight down, when she hit the ground. 

The front of the ship crumpled, and the wings cracked and folded backwards, and thus the ship stood on its head, for a moment quite like an arrow that has been shot into a tree and quivers.  It was a quarter mile beyond the airport fence.  Everybody started running, but there was a bit of smoke, and a slight sound saying “P!”  Out of that broke a high yellow flame which kept burning for almost half an hour while the sirens wailed. (132) 

After Langewiesche earns his pilot’s license, he flies a series of cross country flights down the east coast of the United States, first to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and then to Key West, Florida.  In the chapter titled “You Must Beware of Hatteras,” he describes his solo flight in a Piper Cub down to Cape Hatteras, where he lands on a beach.  He meets and interacts with the coastal people who operate the Hatteras light, forming a friendship based on their mutual fascination with communication from shore to ship.  As a cross-country pilot, he can speak their language of navigation.  He flies to Kitty Hawk, where the Wright brothers flew their first successful test flights, paying homage to their efforts.  When he lands to investigate an abandoned shipwreck, he is almost trapped by the incoming tide as he struggles to clear his small plane from the uncooperative sands. 

In “Key West with Lady,” he persuades an air-minded young lady to ride in the front seat of a Piper Cub as they fly down the coast to Miami and then to Key West.  He is less interested in the tourist attractions of coastal towns than he is in the phenomenon of flying over long stretches of water with little or no possibility of landing safely if the engine fails.  This episode is followed by a chapter titled “Adventure in the Forest,” in which he finds himself engulfed by dense fog while flying low over the pine trees of Georgia.  Low on fuel, he determines that he should land but in the wispy fog cannot find a clearing large enough for a safe landing.  So he chooses the next-best alternative: he lands in a less-heavily forested area where the tall pine trees can cushion their landing.  His account reads like a make-believe story: 

I kept the ship barely flying with small bursts of power just clearing the crowns of trees hoping the maneuver had been properly gauged and the clearing would appear again. 

            Then it opened up under me. 

I cut the gas.  She stalled and mushed down like an elevator; out of the corner of my eyes, I saw the trees grow up beside us.  Halfway down I gave her another burst of power so she wouldn’t drop entirely out of control.  Two tree trunks loomed up dead ahead: the crash. 

I gave a fast kick on the rudder and jerked the stick over so as to stick the ship’s nose through between the two.  This way the wings would take the shock and shear off, rather than the ship’s nose and our heads.  My hand was on its way to the ignition switch.  But before we reached the trees, her wheels brushed through some flimsy greenery, with a noise as of a deer breaking through some underbrush, and she stopped almost on the spot. 

The forest was quiet except for the slow throbbing of our engine.  I switched it off.  (217-218) 

Unbelievable!  The aircraft comes to rest on the ground without causing injury to himself or his passenger.  With the help of some enthusiastic locals, he lowers his aircraft to the ground, where he discovers that although the aircraft has suffered some damage to fabric and spars, nothing structural has been broken, and he decides to take off after the weather clears.  His woman companion returns home by another means. 

Although he never identifies the woman passenger who shares these challenging adventures with him in the book itself, it is unofficially dedicated to “Elizabeth Coit, passenger.”  Elisabeth Coit was an award-winning architect who specialized in designing economical housing in the years before World War II.  Not only did she have an adventurous spirit, she must also have had great trust in her relatively inexperienced but level-headed pilot.