Television Q&A

The story behind the old ‘High Flight’ sign-off

'Longmire':  Robert Taylor, left, and  Bailey Chase star in the hit A&E summer series.
'Longmire': Robert Taylor, left, and Bailey Chase star in the hit A&E summer series.

Akron Beacon Journal

Q. In the 1970s or ’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?

The mention of High Flight probably resonated with night owls and insomniacs around the country who remember when TV stations would actually go off the air for a bit in the wee hours. Before the stations signed off, they would run something ceremonial such as The Star Spangled Banner or a recitation of John Gillespie Magee Jr.’s poem High Flight.

You might know phrases from the poem like “slipped the surly bonds of Earth,” which President Ronald Reagan used in tribute to the Challenger crew after the space shuttle’s 1986 explosion.

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, in December, just days after Pearl Harbor, 19-year-old Magee died in a collision with another aircraft. According to the website of the Library of Congress, which has his original manuscript:

“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. And before long, 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, including one by Orson Welles; a 1957 movie inspired by it and a John Denver song adapted from it. A 1999 children’s book, High Flight: A Story of World War II by Linda Granfield, appears to be out of print but is available, used, online.

Then there are the short films made by the Air Force showing planes in flight to the accompaniment of music and readings of the poem. Those films were sent to TV stations and used as sign-offs from the 1960s to the 1980s. In fact, a 2008 episode of Mad Men has a High Flight film playing on a TV set as Pete is in the midst of a late-night assignation.

I have seen some mentions of the music, but not in an authoritative source. You can still see some of the films on YouTube, and a DVD collection of the films and of readings from the poem by Welles, Russell Crowe, John Glenn and others is $24.95 at

Q. Is Longmire gone for good or will it be back next summer?

There will be a third season of the contemporary Western, which is a big hit for A&E, although I have not seen a specific return date.

Q. The Hallmark Channel has been off AT&T U-verse for three years. Is there a possibility it will come back?

I have not seen anything indicating that the channel will return. In a statement on the U-verse website, AT&T says that its agreement for the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel expired. “Although we have worked on negotiating a fair agreement with the Hallmark Channels,” it adds, “the programming fees they are seeking are not reasonable.” Which simply means that U-verse did not want to pay it.

Send questions to TV Mailbag, Akron Beacon Journal, 44 E. Exchange St., Akron, OH 44309 or Replies cannot be guaranteed.

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