The 4th Fighter Wing celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. The wing is able to trace its roots back to World War II, when seven American pilots volunteered to fight alongside the Royal Air Force and defend Europe against the German Luftwaffe.
Annually, the 4 FW honors the volunteer pilots and the RAF during a Battle of Britain celebration and piano burning event.
There are many stories as to how the piano burning tradition began.
One of the more followed stories told is about a pilot who was also a gifted pianist. He would play in the officer’s mess after their missions. One day he did not return from his mission. In his honor, the RAF squadron took the mess piano outside and burned it.
“To this day, in the RAF, if we ever lose somebody or they pass away in service, the mess piano will get dragged outside and burned,” said RAF Squadron Leader Christopher Rugg, foreign exchange officer.
Rugg is an exchange officer currently stationed with the 4 FW. The program allows for one member of the RAF and one member of the United States Air Force to exchange for a three year period.
“We have quite close ties,” said Rugg. “It is an exchange of ideas and people.”
This year seven pianos were burned during the Battle of Britain ceremony, Sept. 15, 2017, at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina. The seven pianos were donated and decorated by squadrons on base to be part of the piano burning ceremony.
“The ‘heart of the volunteer’ resides in today’s Airmen of the 4th Fighter Wing, much as it did with those American volunteers in the Royal Air Force,” said Col. Christopher Sage, 4th Fighter Wing commander.
The 334th Fighter Squadron was one of the squadrons who took part in the Battle of Britain piano painting event. Members of the 334th faced challenges with the piano painting process, including their piano being pilfered by another squadron.
“Our piano was obtained by another squadron in good spirits, but it kind of put us in a bind,” said Capt. Sean Hoefer, 334th FS student pilot.
Even though their piano was taken, the squadron found and re-painted another piano before the Battle of Britain event.
The Eagles rallied together and painted a once wooden baby grand piano into a bright blue showcase.
“Our piano has the names of all former 334th members who have been killed in action,” said Hoefer.
He added their piano painting design highlighted the squadron’s past and present.
“We emphasized Don Allen, a former 334th Eagle maintainer and all of the nose art he did for morale in WWII,” said Hoefer.
The piano sat on display at the squadron until its fiery fate at the 2017 4 FW Battle of Britain celebration.
“It’s important to remember your heritage,” said Rugg. “It gives you a basis to keep your culture going, it shapes you into more than just a collection of people.”
The evening featured guest speakers including Rugg, a four-ship F-15E Strike Eagle flyover, piano burning and the unveiling of the F-15E Strike Eagle heritage aircraft with an anniversary paint scheme.