The Burning Piano

Piano Burning has been time honoured tradition carried on by pilots for as long as anyone could remember. It’s origins still remain a bit of a mystery, but legend has it that it all began in the British Royal Air Force sometime during the first world war.

As more pilots completed their flight training and flew to the front lines, it soon became clear that although well-trained and proficient in the art of piloting an aircraft, they were lacking in certain "je ne sais quoi" in socially acceptable qualities. In hopes of adding a bit of culture and civility to the growing group of fearless yet under-groomed aviators…pianos were ordered to be brought onto multiple air bases, and displeased pilots were forced to attend piano lessons as part of their training.

For some unknown reason, that no aircrew on base could explain, or have any knowledge of, when one particular piano stationed at RAF Leuchars inexplicably suffered extensive fire damage one evening and was completely destroyed. Sadly, this was the only piano located at the base, and all piano lessons had to be cancelled. Reports surfaced shortly after of similar unexplained fires occurring at other RAF bases…
There is another legend that originated sometime during the Second World War involving an unknown air base, and a nameless piano-playing pilot, and this is the reason the tradition continues in air forces around the world.
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According to legend, each time the squadron lost one of its members, the pilot would play a piano piece as a tribute to his fellow fallen airmen. Then came a day when the piano-playing pilot himself failed to return from a mission, and there was no-one to play the piano for him.
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That evening, the piano was brought outside the barracks and set aflame in symbolic silent tribute to the missing airman, and a tradition was born. 
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In April of 2019, the last living member of the Doolittle Raiders, Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole flew West.  That evening a piano was brought outside of the barracks at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D and was burned in silent and solum tribute to Lt. Cole, and the 80 airmen who participated in the Doolittle Raid.
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U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Thomas Karol

 

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr

 

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2 comments


  • Tim P Salt

    Just for info, the RAF was not formed until 1st April 1918.


  • Mike Morgulis

    at our flying club we skip the middle man and just burn trees.. I’m sure there was once a piano but the possibility of finding evidence of that is difficult given all the other stuff we’ve burned over the years like old camping trailers, couches, chairs, avgas. Our last bonfire was most definitely visible from the ISS.


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