The Symphony of Flight

“Only once we had started, did I notice that part of the orchestra was dark – the percussionist had misread his schedule and did not arrive!”

I met Kwamé Ryan by chance – I was alerted to the fact that he was a passenger on one of my flights, heading to London via Cape Town after conducting the KwaZulu Natal Philharmonic. Through third parties we had arranged to meet in Cape Town to go up Table Mountain and to lunch afterwards, while he had a few hours to kill between flights.

Kwamé is a renowned international conductor, who has worked with many of the major orchestras in Europe and the UK. He currently freelances all over the world, while heading up the Academy of Performing Arts at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. Here he works on educational and community development projects.

We hit it off immediately – him the unassuming music man with an interest in aviation (he did consider piloting once), and me the pilot with an interest in music. (Many years ago I was one of the few brave souls who started a commercial classical music station, but that’s another story).

Over a vegetarian lunch (his preference) we shared life stories and anecdotes, remarking on the similarities between the roles of conductor and captain.

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Maestro Ryan conducting the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. (Pic: TSO).

The conductor has to know his craft and the music well, then he has to meet a diverse group of individuals and win their confidence. Once they trust you and your abilities, you now need to mold their separate skills into a well coordinated human machine. This human machine has to be controlled, but also cajoled into performing better than spec – not just playing the notes, but making extraordinary, beautiful music. Only once this is achieved do the bravos and encores follow.

And if something goes awry, you need to think on your feet and save the performance. Kwamé related the story of the percussionist who did not arrive for a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana. This he only realised once they had started – he then had to improvise, letting another player (I think it was in the horn section) crack the whips and ring the bells, while still playing his/her own parts! The whip cracks, exactly seven of them, also served as cues for the choir to enter – you can imagine the potential for some discordant disaster!

The airline captain’s role is much the same. You need to win the confidence of the crew, the engineers, the ground controllers, the load masters and dispatch (and the passengers). All the time keeping a close eye on all of the many players in this huge orchestra and picking up the false notes or someone playing behind the beat. Only once everyone is inspired to play their part perfectly, do we achieve a push-back on time, a smooth flight and an early arrival.

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Intense coordination and concentration required to arrive at this point, the finale.

Naturally, it does not always work out as planned. And now the captain has to keep calm, track the parts which can be improvised and which not, arrange and re-arrange, keep others’ frayed nerves calm and still conduct the orchestra of flight to please a very finicky audience – the passengers.

Once the flight is over, once the performance is done – it is gone, history. Now the next performance beckons – with all the associated challenges. No two flights are ever exactly the same, just as no two performances are ever the same.

And why do we do it? For the satisfaction of achieving something extraordinary, molding a team into a successful performance.

Then the encores and standing ovations (the compliments on a smooth flight, outstanding service and a brilliant landing), then these only serve to affirm that you have indeed attained what you set out to do – creating something truly beautiful.

(The featured image is from Le Figaro).