Last year was a rough one for losses in our world: Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Morris Fontenot; Navy Lieutenant Nathan Poloski; Air Force Captain Will DuBois; Air Force Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Matthew LaCourse; Air Force Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Charles Rogers; and Air Force Major Richard Schaffer, III all “went west” in 2014–men in their prime, doing what they loved, stolen away from us too soon.

As we’ve said before, if you live in this circle of men and women who fly high-performance aircraft, you are going lose friends, and it sucks every time. We throw nickels on the grass. We drink shots of a vile, nasty liqueur called Jeremiah Weed–which we’ll cover at a later date. We sing our favorite songs. We share good memories of that person. We sit and reflect in our own quiet time.

Another one of the ways we send off our friends is by burning a piano. It’s a long-standing tradition in this community and it’s something we take seriously. It began sometime between the first and second World Wars, thanks to our friends the British. For those of you unfamiliar, allow me to regale with some fighter pilot lore–and like all good fighter-pilot stories, at least ten percent of it is truth!

A piano burns at Kadena AB, Okinawa, courtesy of the 67 FS.
A piano burns at Kadena AB, Okinawa, courtesy of the 67 FS.

Combat aviation was still very new at the time, and thanks to advancements in technology allowing upgrades in performance and lethality, the status of pilots began to grow, earning them a prominent position in society. Also during that time in England, a cultural change was occurring as officers, particularly pilots, were being drawn from the common population rather than from royal or prominent families. Why? Because Great Britain lost nearly an entire generation of men to World War I–particularly in the upper echelon of their society. In to fill out its officer corps, the Royal Air Force needed to look into the general population for qualified people.

The British military establishment up to that point had preferred officers of noble upbringing and class. Throughout the Royal Air Force, efforts were underway to civilize the officer corps with many educational programs designed to refine the manners and tastes of the pilots. Isn’t that interesting: a move by senior leadership to “civilize” its fighter pilots with mandatory training. Sound familiar, anyone??

Members of the 65 AGRS burn a piano to mark the inactivation of the 65th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada.
Members of the 65 AGRS burn a piano to mark the inactivation of the 65th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada.

The instruction became very unpopular, usually scheduled when the flying conditions were optimal. The program that was most egregious to the pilots was, of all things, piano lessons. It was believed in addition to refining the manners of the pilots–good luck with that–piano lessons would increase their dexterity and improve eye-hand coordination, as well as engage the parts of the brain needed to optimize their cognitive performance in combat.

Nearly every RAF base had pianos in the Officers Club to encourage playing the piano and developing those gentlemanly qualities. Unfortunately, the piano teachers were ill equipped to achieve the RAF’s goals–surprising, right? They were accustomed to teaching children (a strong argument can be made for uncanny similarities), so when it came to teaching pilots, some of who were veterans of World War I, the normal authoritarian approach flew like a lead balloon. Let’s be honest: what self-respecting fighter pilot would prefer piano lessons to hanging out with his bros, telling heroic tales involving their combat prowess, and downing adult beverages?

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The 65 AGRS piano burns, along with the notorious jar of Kool-Aid.
The 65 AGRS piano burns, along with the notorious jar of Kool-Aid.

Allegedly, at one point a young Flight Lieutenant named Al Lockwood from RAF Coltishall went to visit some friends at RAF Leuchars. He was curious as to why he did not see them going to their mandatory piano lessons, as they hung out in the squadron all day. They related that a terrible accident had occurred at the club and it had burned down; but, on the bright side the piano went with it. The club was already rebuilt but they still had not replaced the piano–given the scarcities of a luxury like that during the days of the depression.

This tragedy planted a seed in this young man’s mind. Since no one wanted their clubs destroyed, RAF officers drug the pianos out of their clubs and burned them beyond repair. Word quickly spread and soon the RAF ceased the mandatory piano lessons. Piano burning became an unspoken act of defiance that would occur when the pilots felt the bureaucracy was dealing them some injustice.

Ready for a twist in the story?? Al Lockwood had a daughter named Annea Lockwood, who went on to study composition at the Royal College of Music in London and completed her studies with courses in electronic music. She is best known for her rare performance of her well-known 1968 piano piece called `Piano Burning.’ In this work, a piano (one that is beyond repair and ready to be trashed) is burned, allowing the listener to hear a variety of pitched and unpitched sounds as the piano strings heat and break.

Interesting, isn’t it?

(Featured image courtesy of Groucho Duke)