Sr 71

High Flight

sam chenLast Seen: Dec 17, 2023 @ 2:59pm 14DecUTC
sam chen

17th December 2023 | 4 Views
Milyin » 494924 » High Flight

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     It isn’t often a legend is retired. 

     Even though it happened over 3 decades ago, I think it deserves mention.

      Some may have forgotten.


Francis Gary Powers, U.S. U2 reconnaissance (read spy) pilot, was shot down on May 1, 1960 at an altitude of 70k feet over the then USSR by a SAM (surface-to-air missile) over the Ural Mountains. 

Before a missile took him out, Soviet jets had scrambled but could not access the altitude at which Powers was flying.

            Powers left a USAF base in Peshawar, Pakistan, which I visited when I lived in Afghanistan during the late 1960s.

Here’s a bit more information:\


Powers parachuted to safety and was captured by the KGB. 

This event caused the USA not a little embarrassment.  The Soviets cancelled a previous scheduled conference with the U. S., England and France.  Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev were the respective leaders of their countries at that time.

Western attempts at dissembling and denial of the truth were compromised by the Soviets having the U2 virtually intact.

The U. S. had been caught red-handed.

Such coups do not come often.

Powers was convicted of espionage but then, less than 2 years later, was exchanged for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.

During his descent, he jettisoned escape maps and the silver dollar held by a chain around his neck although he did keep the poison pin contained within the dollar (‘there was yet hope for escape,’ he later explained).  That CIA coin, reminiscent of some Q, of the James Bond franchise, might have concocted, contained within its grooves saxitoxin, a potent shellfish neurotoxin.

Upon return to the USA, Powers was criticized for not destroying the U2 and also for not committing suicide, which a good patriot presumably would have done.

Not unlike the disdain some U. S. veterans were met with upon return Stateside from Vietnam during that conflict.


With not a little irony, Powers would die in a later aircraft incident, albeit much more mundane and from lower altitude.  After returning Stateside, he was a weather helicopter pilot for KNBC in Los Angeles.  Running out of fuel in 1977, he crashed his Bell 206B aircraft near a schoolyard and perished along with George Spears, the cameraman.  I have been unable to ascertain just why he ran short of fuel.  

Regardless, it may have been a preventable tragedy.

A helicopter is probably the worst kind of craft in which to run short of fuel.  With a car or other motorized land vehicle, you just come to a stop.

With a fixed wing aircraft, with any luck the pilot finds a suitable landing place.  It doesn’t have to be fatal, like many helicopter crashes.


The USA, determined not to be embarrassed again, developed the SR-71 Blackbird. 

Made by Lockheed (as was the U2), it became the fastest (2193 mph), highest-flying (85,069 feet) aircraft of all time, and established records that have never been broken.  Because of high cost of operation and increasing availability of sophisticated spy satellites, it was retired in 1990.

Marilyn vos Savant has one of the highest IQs in the world, intellectually dwelling in that rarefied stratosphere along with the likes of Albert Einstein.  She writes a column for PARADE magazine.  That’s often the reason I read it in my Sunday newspaper.

A reader once asked her favorite poem.

She replied, “High Flight,” written by a British aviator named John Gillespie Magee Jr.  Sadly, he met his end at age 19 in an accidental mid-air collision in England, not long after writing the poem.

Here is the sonnet:

“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 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. 

– John Gillespie Magee Jr.


            This was well before the advent of either the U2 or the SR-71.  The latter more closely achieved the aspirations of Magee’s poem than any other aircraft.  It was almost as if he anticipated it.

Now, satellites reach higher altitude and travel at greater speeds than any aircraft.  But they would have been only a pipedream for Magee.

 Again, like the death of Francis Gary Powers, that of John Magee may have been preventable.


 But with certain matters, one gets no do-over, no second chance.

            Which recalls this bumper sticker: “If at first you don’t succeed, don’t try sky-diving.”

            Having done it (once, which was enough), I understand that thinking.


            My thoughtful daughter gave a sky-diving lesson to her then boyfriend (now husband) as a gift.  He may have thought she was trying to tell him something.

            His response?  “I’m not going to jump out of a perfectly good airplane.  No thanks.”

            So she gave it to me.

            Knowing the back story, I decided to accept.

            I’d seen the movie, “The Year of Living Dangerously” and decided the actor Mel Gibson had nothing on me.

            Despite the fact he was younger, better -looking and much richer.


            And it would be one more thing I could cross off my bucket list.


            That day in Perris,  the number of waivers I had to sign seemed endless.

The dive I took would be in tandem with a flight instructor.

            When we exited the plane at 14,000 feet, for some reason we began to spin.

I forgot I was prone to vertigo.

            It had been decades since, as a child, I’d been easily motion sick in a passenger car.

            I became violently vertiginous.

            So much so I forgot to pull the parachute rip cord.

            It could have ended badly.

            With good fortune, my flight mate pulled the cord and all was well.


            But I’d had my fill.

            No great desire to do it again.

             I’d had my flight, and it had been from high enough.


            Upon some reflection, Powers may have exhibited some nobility in directing his dying helicopter away from children on the ground who might have otherwise been killed or injured when he crashed.

            Magee gave us the gift of a fine poem which endures to this day.

            In some endeavors, two out of three isn’t all bad.








sam chenLast Seen: Dec 17, 2023 @ 2:59pm 14DecUTC

sam chen



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