Off we go into the wild blue yonder
Climbing high into the sun...
Brigadier General H."Hap" Arnold proposed a song-writing contest to help give the Air Corps its own musical identity. Established as the Aeronautical Division of the Army Signal Corps in 1907, just four years after the Wright Brothers' first flight, and renamed the Air Corps in 1926, it remained throughout WWII a combat arm of the U.S. Army, although the Navy and the Marine Corps also had pilots on active duty.
The contest was sponsored by Liberty magazine in 1938 and over six hundred entries were submitted. Among the applicant composers were such names as Meredith Willson, who went on to Broadway fame as the author of The Music Man and Irving Berlin, whom the Air Corps flew in a B-18 bomber to spark his creativity. Neither of their proposals won, but the fruits of Berlin's labor were later planted in Moss Hart's Broadway show Winged Victory.
The winning entry was a last-minute submission from Yukon-born Robert Crawford, an amateur pilot. The selection committee, made up of airmen's wives, unanimously selected the song. Crawford (1899-1961) was a successful musical professional who had studied voice in France and at the Juilliard School of Music. He purchased a plane in order to fly himself from one concert engagement to the next and so had a good feel for his subject matter. Crawford was the one to officially introduce "Off We Go" to the public when he sang it at the Cleveland Air Races on September 2, 1939.
The U.S. Air Force was established as a separate service unit on September 18, 1947, and Air Force cadets eventually found the lyrics to "Off We Go" sewn into their caps. The original first page of Crawford's score was carried to the moon by Air Force Colonel David R. Scott and Lieutenant Colonel James B. Irwin on July 30, 1971. Their Apollo 15 flight, also manned by Major Alfred M. Worden, held the first all-Air Force space crew.
It is interesting to note that Crawford's lyrical use of the word "yonder" in his song's opening line, "Off we go into the wild blue yonder," actually created a new category of usage in the Oxford English Dictionary. Following Crawford's 1939 introduction of the song, the word "yonder" garnered an additional meaning defined by the OED as "the far and trackless distance."
Melodies and songs are often quoted within another piece of music and "Off We Go" is no exception. Frank Zappa's twenty-five-minute opus "Billy the Mountain," a pastiche of American musical genres, incorporates melodic references to "Off We Go" and a number of other tunes such as "Over the Rainbow," "Pomp and Circumstance," and television's the Tonight Show theme.