The history of Canada's Air Force is the story of the men and women who had the guts, determination and vision to serve their country in the aviation arm of the Canadian Forces.

Canadians in the Air Force immediately distinguished themselves as fighter aces in the First World War. Though the years between the wars were modest ones with an often limited mandate to act as an aid to the civil power, the Royal Canadian Air Force grew to be the fourth largest air force in the world after the Second World War and play a world-class leadership role in the Cold War years as a major player in NATO and a joint partner in the continental air defence of North America through its membership in NORAD. Though the early years of unification provided new challenges, Canada's Air Force regrouped and restored much of its heritage and traditions.

Today, it continues to play a leading role on the world stage as a multi-purpose, combat-capable force that fulfills a variety of domestic and international commitments.(courtesy of the Canadian Department of National Defence 'On Windswept Heights ' copyright: Her Majesty the Queen in right of Canada, 2009)

Halifax Maintenance

John G. Magee

John Gillespie Magee jr.

During the desperate days of the Battle of Britain, hundreds of Americans crossed the border into Canada to enlist with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Knowingly breaking the law, but with the tacit approval of the then still officially neutral United States Government, they volunteered to fight the Nazis.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr., was one such American. Born in Shanghai, China, in 1922 to an English mother and a Scotch-Irish-American father, Magee was 18 years old when he entered flight training. Within the year, he was sent to England and posted to the newly formed No 412 Fighter Squadron, RCAF, which was activated at Digby, England, on 30 June 1941. He was qualified on and flew the Supermarine Spitfire.

Flying fighter sweeps over France and air defense over England against the German Luftwaffe, he rose to the rank of Pilot Officer.

On 3 September 1941, Magee flew a high altitude (30,000 feet) test flight in a newer model of the Spitfire V. As he orbited and climbed upward, he was struck with the inspiration of a poem - "To touch the face of God."

Once back on the ground, he wrote a letter to his parents. In it he commented, "I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed." On the back of the letter, he jotted down his poem, 'High Flight'.

Just three months later, on 11 December 1941 (and only three days after the US entered the war), Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., was killed. The Spitfire V he was flying, VZ-H, collided with an Oxford Trainer from Cranwell Airfield flown by one Ernest Aubrey. The mid-air collision happened over the village of Roxholm which lies between RAF Cranwell and RAF Digby, in the county of Lincolnshire at about 400 feet AGL at 11:30. John was descending in the clouds. At the enquiry a farmer testified that he saw the Spitfire pilot struggle to push back the canopy. The pilot, he said, finally stood up to jump from the plane. John, however, was too close to the ground for his parachute to open. He died instantly. He was 19 years old.

Part of the official letter to his parents read, "Your son's funeral took place at Scopwick Cemetery, near Digby Aerodrome, at 2:30 P.M. on Saturday, 13th December, 1941, the service being conducted by Flight Lieutenant S. K. Belton, the Canadian padre of this Station. He was accorded full Service Honors, the coffin being carried by pilots of his own Squadron."

The poem is housed in ‘The Library of Congress’ in the United States of America. It was gifted to the American Nation by the parents of John Magee.

(source: RAF History)

High Flight

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.

- John Gillespie Magee, Jr

Oui: j'ai scindé mes liens avec le sol
Et valsé dans les cieux avec les fées;
J'ai fait des soubresauts lorsqu'en plein vol
J'ai taquiné les nues rose-argentées.
Sous le soleil j'ai vu la voute immense,
Senti le vent effleurer mes sourcils,
Quand tout-à-coup j'entendis le silence:
J'avais vaincu ma peur du grand défi

Toujours plus haut, dans le ciel azuré,

Là où les aigles ne sauraient planer,
Moi, j'ai pourtant voulu outrepasser
Les bornes du bonheur. Et tendrement
J'osai, au tout sommet du firmament
Toucher le front du Dieu omnipuissant.

- Jean Parizeau

The grave of John. Magee at Scopwick cemetary

"Three thousand miles across a hunted ocean they came, wearing on the shoulder of their tunics the treasured name, "Canada," telling the world their origin. Young men and women they were, some still in their teens, fashioned by their Maker to love, not to kill, but proud and earnest in their mission to stand, and if it had to be, to die, for their country and for freedom.

One day, when the history of the twentieth century is finally written, it will be recorded that when human society stood at the crossroads and civilization itself was under siege, the Royal Canadian Air Force was there to fill the breach and help give humanity the victory. And all those who had a part in it will have left to posterity a legacy of honour, of courage, and of valour that time can never despoil."

-Father John Philip Lardie

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