Friday, May 12, 2006

Airspeed - Music (Part 1)

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Today we’re going to deal with one of the most important aspects of flying – And that’s the music you listen to while you do it!

Sure, there are more important things – like safety – but the fact remains that putting together the right soundtrack can make your flying even more inspiring. There are three aircraft at Tradewinds Aviation on the field at Pontiac, Michigan, where I fly that have auxiliary audio inputs. A three-dollar cable from Radio Shack is all I need to plug my iPod or CD player into the intercom loop of the plane and listen to music while I fly.

Now bear in mind that safety comes first. If the music results in any chance of a miscommunication or failure to give or receive a communication necessary for the safety of the flight, leave your music player at home. But if you can manage the volume of the player, not have to fumble with it when your should be doing other things (playlists Are helpful here), and satisfy yourself that you can hear and be heard in the cockpit and at the controller’s workstation (such as my using a squelch or cutout feature like I use), by all means add a soundtrack to your flight.

Here’s what has been in my CD player and, more recently, my iPod, while I fly.

Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkiyries, is ubiquitous in flying of all kinds. Every trip around the pattern is a majestic sojurn when this performance, by the Royal Memorial Orchestra that appears on the album “Music from the War Movies” is playing in your headset. The melodies have been used in movies from The Blues Brothers to Apocalypse Now, always to good effect. Shouted comments about whom the music scares and how much are entirely up to you. This music is the essence of flight.

The 1970s Latin vibe of War’s Low Rider gets a hard-driving treatment worthy of fighter jets by guitar god Gary Hoey in this version from his Wake Up Call outing. Known to many for his bone-crunchng send-ups of holiday favorites, Gary lends his chops to make this tune ideal for take-offs. Not bad for low airwork either! The key change halfway through is a little contrived, but the underlying groove is unbeatable. If I ever get the chance to fly turbine aircraft, this is definitely going to be on the menu.

Make your next flight a flying circus with Cirque du Soleil’s Svecounia from the soundtrack to “O.” The first fifty seconds are a little annoying, as is the reappearance of that theme toward the end, but the sixteenth-note percussion, the great sonic range, and the female vocals make it natural for flight. I have no idea what the words mean. I gather that they’re in French. But I don’t care if they’re about taking out the trash. This music is flight itself. And if you happen to represent or hire new screenwriters, I have a great screenplay to pitch to you. This music is that evocative. Stories flow into your head when you hear it. Stories of hope and of redemption and of the reason that we fly.

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones are noted the world over for blending eclectic and nontraditional styles to make really great music. This is The Big Blink from Left of Cool. Here again, the sixteenth-note arpeggios and edgy mood make it perfect for listening to on long, straight-in ILS approaches. Unless I miss my guess, music theory afficianados will recognize this as being in the middle-eastern-sounding Locrian mode, which is neither major nor minor and therefore provides a perfect working space for the Flecktones. Most of the tune is in an even time signature, but it blasts into three or five in places, which is delight for those who like music with squirrelly change-ups. Will you see the runway before decision height? Do you remember the missed approach procedure? Could you land the space shuttle if you had to?

Van Halen made only one video for the band’s 5150 album. That was a big risk in 1986 when the band had just changed lead singers after a long run with one of the most notable names in rock vocals, David Lee Roth. The chips were down for Sammy, MJike, Eddie, and Alex, but they instead concentrated on the music. And did I mention that they didn’t even appear in the one video they made? The video consists entirely of footage of the Blue Angels, the United States Navy and Marines’ jet demonstration team. Anyway, those images are absolutely unmistakable and unforgettable. An F/A-18 rotating out of ground effect and the compression around the wings turning the atmosphere to a fleeting shroud of vapor – Then a six-gee vertical climb. Anyway, the ethereal intro, the driving rhythm line, and the backstory of a band that, like the Blue Angels, is completely focused on the core of their craft, make this essential listening for any flight playlist.

I am by no means a New Age fan. Most of it takes almost no talent to play and it’s way over-produced. But there’s something to be said about the ability to compose compelling melodies, phrasings, harmonies, and tonal colorings. Enya does just that with Book of Days. It started out on the album Shepherd Moons in Gaelic, but her label substituted an English vocal track for releases after 1992. Either way, it’s about the music here. The music is evocative of flight and of challenges to be faced. Maybe that’s why it was used to evoke the broad spirit of the newly-opened American west in the film Far and Away.

Lest you think that I’m all about bombast and music requiring electricity, here’s a slice of the best acoustic music available anywhere. This is Raining at Sunset from Chris Thile’s 2000 outing called Not All Who Wander Are Lost. You may have heard of Chris as a third of the acoustic trio Nickel Creek. That’s where I first heard of him and, while there are no flies on Sean or Sara Watkins, Chris is the driving force of the trio. I am absolutely not exaggerating when I say that he’s the best mandolinist on the planet. Listen to the precision here. It’s unreal. And that’s Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan, and Jerry Douglas, among others, playing with him. This is the lilting melody for quiet cruise flight – low and slow and looking down at the places you love. This is also a reminder of the technical skill and competence that it takes to fly an aircraft well. I am not one to gush over small talent or middling achievement. This is perhaps the most treasured album in my collection. I have bought it perhaps ten times to give to friends. Take a listen. [And see and]

Got your own suggestions? Visit the website at or e-mail me at


[Illustrative musical snippets used as permitted by 17 USC § 107 ( for criticism and comment and as otherwise permitted by applicable law.]

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