Q: In Salt Lake City in the 1970s-80s, on CBS or NBC, words from the poem “High Flight” were used in the nightly sign-off. Can you tell me the name of the music that played with it?
A: Your question reaches beyond Salt Lake City, and includes TV and literary history.
The mention of “High Flight” probably resonated with night owls around the country who remember when TV stations would actually go off the air for a bit, leaving behind static or a test pattern.
Before the stations signed off, they would run something ceremonial like an image of a waving flag and the sound of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
And another sign-off standard was a reading, with musical accompaniment, of John Gillespie Magee Jr.’s poem “High Flight.”
You might know phrases from the poem like “slipped the surly bonds of Earth,” which were used in then-President Ronald Reagan’s tribute to the crew of the shuttle Challenger in 1986 following its explosion.
The poem itself is much older. Magee was a U.S. citizen serving as a Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot when he wrote the poem and sent it to his family in September 1941; his aunt had it published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that November.
Then, just days after Pearl Harbor, 19-year-old Magee died in a collision with another aircraft. As reporters covered Magee’s death, the poem became more widely known,
Indeed, the website of the Library of Congress says, “Within days of Magee’s death, ‘High Flight’ had been reprinted in newspapers across the U.S.
Soon after, the RCAF began distributing plaques with the text of the poem to British and Canadian airfields and training stations. Copies of the poem could be found in the pockets of many U.S., Canadian and British fighter pilots.
There have been audio recordings of the poem, among them one by Orson Welles; a 1957 movie inspired by it; and a John Denver song adapted from it.
Then there are the short films made by the Air Force showing different planes in flight to the accompaniment of music and readings of the poem.
Those films were sent to TV stations and used as their sign-offs from the ’60s to the ’80s.
In fact, a 2008 episode of “Mad Men” has a “High Flight” film playing on a TV set as Pete is in the middle of a late-night assignation.
It’s possible, then, that more than one TV station in Salt Lake City was using a “High Flight” piece as a sign-off, and that they used more than one version.
I have seen some mentions of the music, but not in an authoritative source. Ray Haas, who has spent about 20 years researching “High Flight” and Magee for an upcoming book, said he has not tracked down the name of the composer.
But you can still see some of the films on YouTube. And Haas sells a DVD collection of the films and of readings from the poem by Welles, Russell Crowe, John Glenn and others (You can find out more via www.highflightshop.com.)