The pipes are calling

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jennifer Zima
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs

As the melody is carried through the breeze, the distinctive sound of the bagpipe pulls on many heartstrings as listeners’ eyes begin to glisten.

Bagpipers have performed at countless ceremonies for the 501st Combat Support Wing, but one has his roots embedded in the history of RAF Alconbury for over 40 years.

John Maxwell Gary Leith Kernaghan, a retired imagery analyst for the Royal Air Force and Ministry of Defense, has been playing the bagpipes on many occasions.

Kernaghan learned to play the bagpipes from his grandfather while living in Armagh County, Northern Ireland.

“I started when I was five years old, on our home farm in Northern Ireland,” he said. “My grandfather’s farm was the center of a big farming community. That’s where the parties were every Saturday night.”

Kernaghan played with his grandfather until a more experienced neighbor took him under his wing.

“They’re like riding a bike, once you know it’s pretty easy,” he said. “It takes 21 years to learn the pipes. Seven learning, seven consolidating, and then seven really getting your act together.”

The music and the instrument connect Kernaghan with his family roots and his Irish heritage. Some of his instrument parts were passed down from his grandfather, and the songs he plays have been around for hundreds of years.

“The history is in the music, some of the tunes are from the 1600s,” said Kernaghan.

Playing the pipes keeps his mind agile.

“Playing music keeps the brain moving,” said Kernaghan. “I play nearly every day. Pipers may have thousands of tunes in their heads.”

Unsurprisingly for a military man, he enjoys playing marches on his bagpipes.  

“I’ve been playing at Alconbury and Wyton for many years, starting around 1970,” said Kernaghan.

“He has willingly provided support in the form of his excellent and moving bagpipe playing,” said Royal Air Force Sqdn. Ldr. Clive Wood, RAF commander for RAF Alconbury and RAF Molesworth, who first met Kernaghan in the late 1990s. “He has done a myriad of events over the years such as commemoration for Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Change of Commands for the 501st and the Air Force Ball.”

One of the most memorable events for the RAF commander was the ceremonial burning of the piano.

“At one of the Air Force Balls [RAF Alconbury 2016], he supported a traditional piano burning whilst playing the bagpipes,” said Wood. “The tradition goes back to World War II, for those who did not return from the war. The U.S. squadrons also celebrated it. When the piano player didn’t return [from combat], it was decided to honor him by burning a piano.”

The long slow skirl of a bagpipe can evoke emotions at solemn events.

“One of the most emotional instruments is the bagpipe, especially for memorial services,” said Kernaghan.

As the leaves turn color, and the autumn chill sets in, Kernaghan and his pipes will be calling.