I was listening to the Writer’s Almanac this morning and it closed with a Donald Hall poem I very much liked, so I thought I’d share it with you:

The Old Pilot

He discovers himself on an old airfield.
He thinks he was there before,
but rain has washed out the lettering of a sign.
A single biplane, all struts and wires,
stands in the long grass and wildflowers.
He pulls himself into the narrow cockpit
although his muscles are stiff
and sits like an egg in a nest of canvas.
He sees that the machine gun has rusted.
The glass over the instruments
has broken, and the red arrows are gone
from his gas gauge and his altimeter.
When he looks up, his propeller is turning,
although no one was there to snap it.
He lets out the throttle. The engine catches
and the propeller spins into the wind.
He bumps over holes in the grass,
and he remembers to pull back on the stick.
He rises from the land in a high bounce
which gets higher, and suddenly he is flying again.
He feels the old fear, and rising over the fields
the old gratitude. In the distance, circling
in a beam of late sun like birds migrating,
there are the wings of a thousand biplanes.


  1. I have been reading “Lindbergh” by A. Scott Berg, so this resonated — thanks.

  2. This poem had almost no effect on me until the last three lines, which unaccountably brought tears to my eyes. I still don’t understand why. Thank you for posting it.

  3. Yeah, the end hit me like that too. That’s why I posted it.

  4. that reminds me of a photo of my grandfather from 1942 or so of him with his friends/colleagues/workmates gathered around a piece of machinery they were fixing. (He was an engineer in the British army.) Imagine the ideas of this poem condensed into a look in someone’s eye and you’ll get the idea of the photo.

  5. I listened to the poem in my pick-up truck, after I’d parked by my work site, before locking up and entering. I imagine an old Bush pilot who’s so attuned to his aircraft that every action comes as second nature.
    Makes me wish I would learn to fly something.

  6. thanks; I missed this on the radio. love it.
    I spent about two years as a member of a MMORPG called “Dawn of Aces.” At some point a number of pilots from another, earlier WWI avaiation MMORPG showed up. On one of their sites, someone had comemmorated an all-pilot fly-in in honor of a member who had died.
    The screenshots showed hundreds and hundreds of digital SE5s and DVIIs and Camels and Nieuports stackked up into the digital sky, the pilots weeping into their textchat channels. The site, now lost to me, is one of the most moving and stange things I have ever seen.

  7. He starts out in suspiciously plain prose; the sequence of simple images that follow is predictable but the ending is indeed moving, only partly by contrast. It might be that the very image of an old or dead aviator (his plane’s propeller in or above his grave) is mysteriously powerful. LH in particular might want to check out two Russian poems: “Воздухоплавательный парк” (The Aeronautic Park) by Kushner and “Прохожий” (The Passer-By) by Zabolotsky.

  8. Thanks! The first is online here, and the second here; I like them very much.

  9. i dont understand wat the poem is he imagining all of this?

  10. You can think of it as a dream.

  11. does he dream of this before he dies..

  12. Well, he’s a very old man, but I don’t think he’s supposed to be actually dying in the course of the poem. He’s just dreaming about his youth.

  13. can someone tell me what the poem is actually about??

  14. I just got Hall’s collected poems (e-book on sale today for $1.99), and I see this one has been retitled “The Pilot of 1918.” Interesting.

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