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A weekly CyberMemo designed to keep you on task.

Monday November 18, 2001 Volume III Number 47


The Tuesday morning of September 11 was like any other morning for my friend Captain Dan. 

It was another beautiful day in the office – from his left seat in the cockpit of the jumbo jet – cruising at thirty-five thousand feet at about five hundred ten knots along the coast line of British Columbia, past Vancouver on north toward the Gulf of Alaska and over Prince Rupert then Ketchikan and then Juneau.  The aircraft is locked into an electronic course, but these picturesque landmarks make for the best kind of navigation.  The visual kind.  Captain Dan pilots the jumbo MD-11 crisscrossing the globe routinely, in and out of far-away ports, all in a day’s work.

Pre-dawn take-offs are part of the deal.  This morning was like all the rest.  But the pay-off still rewards this veteran flier as he backs off the throttle at altitude, takes a sip of hot coffee and looks out the side window at the rocky coastline below, blue waters dotted with sleepy islands lined up along the water’s edge as far as the eye can see and off in the distant jagged mountain peaks under a blanket of white.  Ice and snow never leave this part of the world, and from the air still fill Dan with a quiet sense of wonder.

About 6:30AM PST the surprise command came over the radio.  “SCATANA.”  Later, Dan’s co-pilot, who had never heard the phrase, said Dan’s face turned ashen. 

In Dan’s military flight days, he learned all about the priority code word SCATANA.  In extreme emergencies, the FAA takes control - a Security Control of Air Traffic and Navigation Aids.  It is to aviation what CODE BLUE is to hospital medicine.  It’s the ultimate emergency alert.  While Dan learned the definitions for the exams and the certifications, he never thought he would hear the term utilized for any other purpose than an emergency drill.  This was no drill.  SCATANA.  It meant that the United States was under attack, that all navigational systems fell under the immediate and complete control of the federal government and that every domestic aircraft should immediately find the nearest runway and set down their aircraft without delay.

“Armageddon,” Dan thought.

By this time, the nearest airport was Anchorage.

The Air Traffic Controller, now under Federal command, guided Captain Dan, his crew and his MD-11 to the runway.  The only explanatory information the Captain had was that the two Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City had been hit by airliners piloted by terrorists.  Then the Pentagon.  Then an American Airlines jet plummeted into Pennsylvania farmland.  He parked his jumbo jet on the tarmac in Anchorage, shut down the systems and headed for the nearest television screen tuned to CNN.

Far away from home and family, Captain Dan watched with the rest of us as the events of that watershed day unfolded.

* * * * * * *

John Gillespie Magee was born in 1922 in Shanghai.  His parents were American missionaries to China.  His mother, an American born in England, loved books and ideas and reading and writing and cultivated a world of words in John.  Through his growing up years in the thirties, the globe became an increasingly hostile place.  War in Europe and Asia escalated.

John managed to secure a scholarship to Yale.  He also had dreams of flight.

In 1941, the inevitability of war caused John to rethink his college plans.  He went to the Army Air Corps recruiter and took a preliminary exam to enter flight training.  His eyesight fell just short of the standard of perfection required.  But he heard that across the border, the Royal Canadian Air Force, by then committed to assist Britain in its fight against Germany, was taking candidates with less than perfect eyes.  So John G. Magee dropped out of Yale, and joined up the RCAF.

Not long afterwards, he crossed the Atlantic for fighter training.  He learned the fine art of the Dog Fight.  One of his colleagues in flight school, Air Vice-Marshall M.H. Le Bas, said later that Magee loved to fly… but he loved to write even more.  Just after his first solo in the high performance British fighter plane, the Spitfire, Magee described his experience in powerful word pictures.  Le Bas encouraged him, “write it down.”

He did.

The first draft flowed on a piece of scrap paper, the words came easily.  It was a moment of inspiration.  As he read his own thoughts and re-worked the poem, he wrote out a final version, tucked it in an envelope and mailed it to his mother back home.

Days later, December 11, 1941, four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and three days after America entered the war, in a tragic mid-air collision over Lincolnshire John G. Magee died on active duty somewhere in the skies above his mother’s homeland – Great Britain.  The war had barely begun.

He was nineteen.

* * * * * * * *

American flight personnel on international assignments found themselves stuck in airports around the world, most of them glued to television screens unable to turn away from the CNN and BBC reports beamed all around the globe by satellite.

The unprecedented domestic restriction held for days.  No non-military airplane in the United States could fly.  The nation was grounded.

There was, however, some shuffling of American aircraft and crews in other parts of the world.  Captain Dan was moved from Anchorage to Tokyo.

Not far from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport are two major hotels where flight crews from all over the world stay while in town.  The week of 9/11, these hotels were jammed with anxious pilots and flight attendants waiting for instructions… and leery of world events, the climate of terror, and the prospect of returning to the skies.

Two anxious flight attendants had an idea.  Let’s call the flight crews together on what President Bush declared a National Day of Prayer and encourage each other to carry on.  They invited a hundred airline employees, most of them Americans.

And they asked Captain Dan to give a keynote speech.

Word got out to the other hotel guests.  When Dan arrived in the conference room, with some thoughts prepared for his colleagues in crisis, he could hardly reach the front.  Over one thousand people came.  From all over the world.  An international crowd, every color in the rainbow, every style of national garb - Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, business people, airport workers, it was an unexpected gathering of representatives from the global village, right there in the heart of Tokyo. 

Dan prepared for a hundred co-workers.  He took the platform, and then the microphone to address well over a thousand people crowded up and down the aisles and out the doors and into the hallways of a Japanese conference room.

The organizing flight attendant made the introduction.  “Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to our next speaker, Captain Daniel Dill.”

Not that long ago, he was sipping coffee gazing wistfully out his window from high above the earth out to the Yukon Territory just beyond the snowcapped ridges way out on the horizon.  Now, he looked out from behind a lonely podium into the fearful, anxious eyes of an international audience, longing for some sort of hopeful word that might bring back a semblance of the inner peace that had escaped like helium out of a burst balloon Tuesday morning Nine Eleven.

“Like you, I feel a certain degree of anxiety about returning to my job, and lifting off the runway once more in these days of international crisis,” he began.

He spoke of the horrible images we all witnessed.  He condemned the crimes of a few, who in their twisted view of reality justified in their own minds these monstrous crimes against the innocents.  He asked for justice.  He talked about the dangers of negligence, and the need for vigilance.

Dan is not a trained public speaker.  But he is a reader.  He’s articulate.  He is passionate about his work, and about his faith.

The audience is still.  For many of them, English is the language of commerce, but not their primary tongue.  In spite of the cultural and language barriers, the whole room seems to track Dan’s every thought.

“My hope, my comfort, my strength… depend on the sacred Scriptures.  I want to quote one of them to you today, and I think you’ll understand why it means so much to me.”

Dan explained that he first connected this passage with flying when he visited the gravesite of one of his childhood heroes, Charles Lindbergh on the east coast of Maui. While Lindbergh was not known as a religious man, “Lucky Lindy,” as he was called, did make careful arrangements for his own funeral which occurred in 1974.  He must have planned it, Dan said.  "If I take the wings of the dawn and dwell in the uttermost part of the sea..." is engraved on his grave marker for all to see.  It comes from Psalm 139.  Then Dan went on to quote the verse in its entirety, memorized in the early days of Dan’s flying career, from the King James Version of the Bible, “If I take the wings  of the dawn and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Thy hand shall lead me, Thy right hand shall lay hold upon me.”

“As I fly all over the world, week after week, month after month, year after year, this promise from the Word of God gives me a peace that passes all understanding.

“When I step into the cockpit this week, one more time, you know I’ll be quoting it again…” he told his audience of a thousand.

* * * * * *

Rev. John and Mrs. Magee received word of their son’s death before they received the letter.  Grief stricken, they could not bear to open the envelope.  It remained sealed in a drawer for several months.

When she finally did open the handwritten envelope from England, she found her son’s poem.  “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, the page began.

As she read her son's words, and recognized his gift of expression, the hours and years over books and essays and poetry and Scripture memorization and storytelling and laughter and tears all fell on her like a shower of blessing.  She knew these words would touch lives.  And they did.

The young Spitfire pilot wrote powerful words in meter and rhyme that would become a byword for pilots throughout the war, bringing encouragement and hope and perspective and joy.

* * * * * *

“More than anything, my father wanted to fly,” Dan told his Tokyo audience.  He and his best buddy signed up.  When my dad’s pal failed to pass the rigorous eye exam for the Army Air Corps, he like many other wannabes went north to join up with the Royal Canadian Air Corps where even with less than perfect eyesight, he learned to fly.  During his training, he met another pilot, about his age, the son of missionaries from China and a Yale drop out, who liked to write poems.  My father’s friend met and trained with a guy named John Gillespie Magee, Dan explained.

When I was a boy, wanting to be a pilot like my dad, my father introduced me to Magee’s poetry.  I loved the words, as my father loved them.  I memorized the poem, line by line.  It has become a part of me.

We all make our living in the air.  Dan scanned over the crowded room.  We pilot aircraft.  We care for passengers.  We travel all over the world.  We’ve met people, been to places most people only dream about.  We also face dangers.  Most of the time, we stuff those fears somewhere into the dark recesses of our minds and go about our business without much thought of the risks.  But today, after Tuesday’s terrible tragedy, we can’t stop thinking about those risks.  They are real.  They are here.

I want you to hear the words of a poem written by a nineteen year old World War II fighter pilot, the son of missionaries, a passionate young man who reminds me, every time I repeat his words, of the exhilarating blessing we enjoy in this business.

And Captain Dan proceeded from memory, in his rich baritone voice, through the conference room’s speaker system, piped into the halls to accommodate the overflow crowd, without missing a phrase, words written on a scrap of paper by a teenager while preparing to do battle with Hitler’s war machine…

Oh! I Have slipped the surley 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.


Over lunch, my friend Dan told me he has never in his life experienced anything like it.  As he concluded, this great audience in Tokyo, so far away from home, this international collection of the world’s diverse cultures, wept together.

Along with Captain Dan, who finished his talk with the last line of the poem, and wiping his eyes, took his seat on the platform.

* * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning, you are a leader.

It was over two months ago now that our nation heard SCATANA.  You are adapting now to the changes that are affecting you, your family and your business.  You are also realizing that much has not changed.  Many of the same challenges and annoyances and distractions and personality conflicts survived SCATANA and remain with you today.

After Dan spoke in that Tokyo hotel to a room full of aviators, the organizing flight attendants introduced a Singaporean missionary.  He spoke a heavily accented English and standing next to Captain Dan, seemed perhaps about one third Dan’s size.  He shared a sincere story.  He told this now open-hearted crowd how it is that faith in Jesus Christ can fill an empty void, and bring that peace that passes all understanding.  According to Dan, the crowd sat in rapt silence, drinking in the power of the message.

When President Ronald Reagan took the podium at the Memorial Service for the seven victims of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster at Arlington National Cemetery on that cold day in January of 1986, he drew inspiration from Magee’s poem, High Flight. 

As you begin your day, don’t think of it as just another day.  Slip the surly bonds of earth.  Dance the sky on laughter-silvered wings.  Top the wind swept heights with easy grace.  Reach out, and touch the face of God.

We’re on the other side of SCATANA.

We’re ready to take off. 

One more time.

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Thanks to Captain Dan Dill for this true story.  HIGH FLIGHT by John Gillespie Magee, Jr. (1922-1941)

© Copyright Kenneth E. Kemp 2001

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