By Nathan Pfau, Army Flier Staff WriterAugust 24, 2017
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- As wood crackled and piano wires snapped from their hinges, Airmen of the 23rd Flight Training Squadron celebrated an Air Force tradition with a certain purpose, but uncertain roots.
Airmen and family members of the 23rd FTS took part in Fort Rucker's first ceremonial piano burning outside the unit's headquarters building on Cairns Army Airfield Aug. 18, and despite the tradition's uncertain roots, to the Airmen of the 23rd FTS, there is no question to what the tradition stands for -- honoring fallen Aviators, according to 2nd Lt. Joshua Civelli, 23rd FTS.
The ceremonial piano burning is a tradition that in some stories dates back almost a hundred years, but the story that Civelli has heard throughout his time as an Airmen dates back to World War II.
"The piano burning first took place during the Battle of Britain when the Royal Air Force was fighting off the Germans that were invading," said Civelli, adding that although the origin is not well understood, the tradition is well documented.
The story goes that after each mission, the RAF pilots would return to the squadron hangar for a bit of socialization and camaraderie, and during the nights of celebration there was an Airman who would play the piano for entertainment.
"When he played that piano, he would take people out of that war environment and help them relax from all the travesties happening around them," said Civelli.
Unfortunately, one day the Airman was out on a bombing mission when his plane was shot down and he was killed in action. After news reached the squadron, they needed to decide what to do with the piano that the Airman played.
"It was decided, as a group, to burn the piano [in honor of the Airman] because nobody could play the piano as good as he could, and nobody could replace him as a person and give what he gave," said Civelli. "Ever since, the tradition has been passed on as the burning of the piano to try and remember those who have lost their lives in aerial combat."
For Airmen of the 23rd FTS, such as 1st Lts. John Grondin and Matt Cunningham, honoring a tradition like the burning of the piano is important to not only remember those who have come and sacrificed before them, but to remind them that what they do is put their lives on the line.
"It's an old tradition that is a way to honor people and to commemorate those who have passed on before us," said Grondin. "This is a career field where everyone knows someone who was in a bad spot or didn't quite make it out, so it's just a way to remember those people."
"Everybody has the potential for putting his or her life on the line at any point in time [in this field]," added Cunningham.
Although this piano burn was the third for Grondin, it was the first for Cunningham. Civelli said there are too many Airmen who haven't had the opportunity to participate in traditions like the piano burning and, for that reason, he wanted to bring it to Fort Rucker.
"It's a tradition that is slipping away," he said. "A lot of people have forgotten about it. During my training process, I have one guy that I've known who's died and we've had others who have lost their lives throughout the year.
"This is just a way for us to commemorate those we've lost, and it's to reflect that we are in a combat situation sometimes and people do lose their lives -- this gets people back on track," he continued.
"The Air Force is very young as a branch and we don't have very many traditions. I want to be able to revitalize the traditions, because if you forget about the traditions, just like with customs and courtesies, they will eventually disappear. This is something that we have and this shows that we do have heritage and we do have a legacy -- this is something that's special to us," Civelli added.