Why pilots torch pianos at club

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Miles Crowell
  • 71st Flying Training Wing
Since there is a piano burning at the Vance O'Club tonight after Class 05-14's assignment night, I thought I would provide a little history on the tradition of burning pianos. As in any fighter-pilot story, I guarantee 10 percent is true.
The tradition is actually tied back to the British sometime between World War I and World War II. As airplanes became more powerful and lethal, the status of pilots began to grow and they began to gain a prominence and independence. There was a cultural change occurring in Great Britain as officers, particularly pilots, were being drawn from the common population rather than from royal or prominent families. The simple fact of the matter was that England lost nearly a generation of men to World War I, particularly in the upper class, and was forced to look deeper into the population to fill out the officer corps.
The British military establishment 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. The training was mandatory and became very unpopular as it was usually scheduled when the flying would be best. The program that most annoyed the pilots was piano lessons. It was thought that in addition to refining the manners of the pilots, piano lessons would increase the dexterity of the pilots and allow them "latitude in action" (multi-tasking in its day). Nearly every RAF base had pianos in their o'clubs to encourage officers to play the piano and develop those gentlemanly-type qualities.
Unfortunately, piano teachers were ill equipped to achieve the RAF's goals. They were accustomed to teaching children (I will concede some similarities), so when it came to teaching pilots, some of who were veterans of World War I, the normal tyrannical approach did not go so well. Most pilots would rather hang around telling stories of downing enemy aircraft or how they survived dangerous barnstorming stunts than take piano lessons.
As legend goes, one young pilot, Flight Lt. Al Lockwood, from RAF Coltishall, was visiting some friends at RAF Leuchars. He was curious as to why he did not see them going to piano lessons, as they hung out in the squadron all day. They related that there had been a terrible accident 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 (it was the depression and luxuries were scarce). This tragedy planted a seed in this young man's mind. Since no one wanted their clubs destroyed, so 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.
This story still has some strange twists. When I was stationed at RAF Upper Heyford, I rented a house from Squadron Leader Al Lockwood, who some claim is a second generation Lockwood (I have never been able to confirm, the RAF is a bit more tight-lipped on their Web sites). Well as the story goes, it appears Lockwood Sr. was a very accomplished pianist, just hated having lessons below his level. He had several children, one named Annea Lockwood. Annea studied composition at the Royal College of Music in London and completed her studies with courses in electronic music with Gottfried Michael Koenig. 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. But I digress (common during fighter pilot stories). So where were we? Oh yeah, pilots and piano burning.
Among pilots today, piano burning has become a way of celebrating an enormously good or bad event, for example to mourn the loss of a fallen comrade or on a positive note a successful combat sortie. But that's enough for today's history lesson from an old gray beard ... see you at the club tonight as we celebrate the hard work and commitment of 22 pilots who will receive their assignments.