Keys of tradition honor Fallen Airmen

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Joshua A. Kincaid
  • 94th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

The sounds of crackling flames and out-of-tune piano melodies fill the air.

Intermittent clouds of smoke pierce the crowd of Airmen, veterans and family members as they recite the Air Force song. Some with smiling faces, others in deep reflection of their passed wingmen, friends, comrades and loved ones.

The burning of the piano, an intercontinental military tradition, took place on Dobbins Air Reserve Base on April 1, 2023. The event celebrated the 80-year anniversary of the 700th Airlift Squadron’s activation and honored those Airmen who have given their lives, some who paid the ultimate sacrifice, in support of the squadron’s myriad missions through the years.

700th Airlift Squadron pilot, Capt. Juan Castaneda, led the charge for the celebration, along with support from the Dobbins Fire Department which monitored the controlled burn, and the 94th Civil Engineering Squadron which blasted the sand, establishing a safe area for the burning of the piano.

“The squadron was activated for the very first time on April 1st, 1943, which is exactly 80 years ago to the day,” said Castaneda. “We knew we wanted to do a piano burn because it’s a long-standing tradition that started with the Royal Air Force but continued on with those countries that were Allies during World War II.”

As any decades-old story goes, there are various versions of  the burning piano’s origin.

The story most often told originates from World War II when a RAF pilot, who was also a skilled pianist, played a tune in memoriam for each pilot who didn’t return from battle. Eventually, it came to pass that the pianist gave his life in battle, so the remaining pilots decided to honor him by burning the piano as to not let another person play his keys.

A second story is told, which also holds its origin with RAF pilots. As World War II raged on and pilots became scarce, the RAF was to bring in pilots who didn’t fit the mold of a “proper English gentleman.” The RAF decided to make piano lessons a mandatory training exercise for the new pilots as a way to improve dexterity and instill gentlemanly tendencies. The pilots became fed up with the lessons and chose to burn the pianos rather than continue with the training.

Regardless of true origin, at Dobbins ARB, the tradition is being established as a way to honor the fallen Airmen from previous years.

“Last year was especially tough for us as we lost Lt. Col. Richard Lester, who had been tremendously influential in supporting the 700th,” said Castaneda. “He provided morale and a lot of heritage and sharing with us the challenges he went through as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. Additionally we lost Master Sgt. Tony Metcalfe about a month after his retirement, which hit us pretty hard. With both of those loses we wanted to honor them the right way. We decided to combine both events to honor the people that we’ve lost more recently as well as during our 80-year history.”

The Dobbins Fire Department played an instrumental role in making the event happen and were the first to write names on the piano. The department lost two members over the past year who were honored at the piano burning – Master Sgt. Carlos Quiñones and Firefighter Robert Davis.

“The 700th Airlift Squadron reached out to us back in January about bringing a time-honored tradition to pay respect and homage to their fallen brethren in the form of the piano burn,” said Dobbins Fire Chief Shannon Anderson.

Coordinating and planning a burn on a military installation is a thorough process as to minimize risk and maximize safety. Anderson described the pre-site check which established that people, property and the environment of the installation were not going to be harmed or damaged in any way from the piano burn.

“Being retired active duty Air Force myself and being station in Europe more than 10 years of my career, I knew of this time-honored tradition and felt compelled,” said Anderson. “From my understanding, this the first time it’s taken place at Dobbins, and I was honored to help bring this tradition here.”

In what can only be described as serendipity, the piano chosen for the burning held a noteworthy history as well.

The piano was donated by a Georgian who had worked at Dobbins for 13 years. It originated from a Pennsylvanian company that shares its namesake with one of the Airmen lost in 2022, Lester Piano Company, and was produced in the 1940’s, which is the same timeframe of the 700th AS’s activation. The top of the piano was saved and gifted to the wife of the late Lt. Col. Lester.

“Dobbins ARB, the 700th Airlift Squadron and the 94th Airlift Wing have a rich history of 80 years of service to the community, the nation and Allied countries,” said 94th Airlift Wing Commander, Carl Magnusson. “The piano burning tradition honors that history and continues to deepen the camaraderie of our Airmen, allowing us to remember and celebrate those who have given their lives to preserve our freedoms.”

Plans are for the piano burn to become an annual tradition to commemorate all fallen Airmen from Dobbins who lost their lives during the previous year.