In 1954 pilot, navigator, naturalist, and philosopher Guy Murchie published Song of the Sky, one of the greatest love songs to aviation and the skies ever written. Framed by the account of a trans-Atlantic flight in a C-54 four-engine cargo plane with the call-sign CHUN, Murchie describes navigation, meteorology, biology, aviation history, and the dreams of flying in flowing, lyrical prose.
Murchie, a former war correspondent and pilot, now navigator and philosopher, begins with the origins of navigation, from camel caravans and Pacific Islanders through to the art of celestial navigation as practiced in 1954, and touches on the latest technology – radio steers from ground stations and the A-N radio ranges, and VOR. Modern readers will shake their heads at the effort required, but those familiar with GPS will recognize the technique. Murchie used Polaris, Aldebaran, Mizar, Venus, and other stars and planets to find his way across the sea, while we use man-made stars in the same way. From there he shifts to the weather – winds and clouds, “the wine of weather.” Birds and flying insects fill the next sections, followed by discussions of the joys and hazards of the skies, and finally the overall grand sense of the world as CHUN begins the careful descent into its destination in Scotland.
The book provides a rich look into a world now fading fast. I studied with men who started flying in the 1930s and 1940s, who taught me what they learned on the Tayrlorcrafts, Cubs, and C-45s (DC-3s). Somewhere I still have RNAV charts, and I’ve used an A-N range simulator (which system may explain why so many older pilots were Odd, but I digress.) I’d been flying five years when GPS became, if not common, at least accepted for civilian use. But you still couldn’t use it for check rides. Murchie describes that world, the long hours of four engines droning across the North Atlantic at a mere 11,000 feet (today airliners cross at 33,000′ or better), well into the thick of the weather.
Much of his weather information is outdated, but not entirely wrong. Thunderstorms continue to spit airplanes out in pieces and ice and fog still inspire more prayers and religious devotion than most sermons do. We also know more the ways birds and bugs fly, but the poetry of Murchie’s language remains beautiful, and he captures the awe of flying among the pillars of Thor, or looking down on new cities and places. He also illustrated the book with technical drawings and sketches.
Readers familiar with Richard Bach or Neville Schute, or even Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s aviation writing, will sense a familiar spirit. Not Bach of J.L. Seagull, but Bach of Stranger to the Ground. I came to Murchie through Bach, via a little list of books he has in one of his essays in A Gift of Wings. But Murchie is much more than Bach or St-Ex, in that he brings much more science to the magic of flying.
Song of the Sky received the John Burroughs medal for natural history writing in 1956. Although old and in some ways outdated or superseded, the book remains a love song to all things aeronautical and aerial. The book is no longer in print, but copies are readily available through used book outlets and some libraries. There appears to be a digital version available for download from the University of Florida internet archive as well. It’s a book that can be nibbled on, dipped into by topic, or read cover-to-cover, racing the moon through a sea of stars and cloud to reach the sunrise on aluminum wings.