Joseph Ceo

June 1, 2004

Joseph Ceo knows that a properly tuned oboe resonates its middle A at precisely 440 Hz. He also knows that his particular 1966 Cessna P206A cruises happily at 135 knots. He knows this because he has been a professional musician and a private pilot for the past 30 years, and for Ceo, the two disciplines exist in complete harmony.

"Flying IFR calls for a lot of concentration, and so does conducting an orchestra," said Ceo, who earned his instrument rating in 1984 and has logged more than 2,400 hours total time in general aviation aircraft. "When you're in a musical performance, you have to be in control, keep everybody together. The basic IFR skills are very similar to running an orchestra. You have to recognize the three families of instruments. The scan is the basis for everything."

Two or three days a week, Ceo commutes from his home in Westerly, Rhode Island, to Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, where he serves as an adjunct professor of music and conducts a local community orchestra. Prior to joining Salve Regina, Ceo taught at the University of Rhode Island from 1976 until his retirement in 1993.

"You look at the engine instruments, and you have the same concepts when you hear a brass instrument or a percussion instrument. You want to keep them between the lines," he said. Those lines are the needles of an electronic tuner — sort of like a high-tech tuning fork. The device is set so that its needle centers when a given instrument emits sound at the prescribed pitch. "And doggone if you're not lining up that vertical line — it's the same as lining up the localizer."

Ceo's first flight lesson, in 1973, was a fortieth birthday present from his wife, Joan; he earned his private pilot certificate the following year. Joan teaches harp at the University of Rhode Island and regularly performs with the Connecticut Opera and the Hartford Symphony. The two have made many trips in their Cessna 206 with Joan's 100-pound, 6-foot concert grand harp loaded in the back. But being traveling musicians wasn't always so convenient for them.

"Once I had to come back from Italy to Washington, D.C., and [the airline] wouldn't let me carry [my viola] on because the case was too large," he said. The viola was subject to such high temperatures in the airliner's baggage compartment that the glue holding its delicate wooden panels together began to seep out. "The bridge on a string instrument is movable. When it's subject to extreme temperatures the pegs move, and finally everything comes loose."

All of the major domestic airlines allow musical instruments as carry-on items as long as they fit in the overhead bin, under a passenger seat, or in the box often located next to the ticket line. American Airlines' baggage policy states that passengers may purchase an adjoining seat for a larger instrument, although the company draws the line at the upright bass fiddle. But buying an extra seat on every trip can be cost prohibitive, and Ceo was not about to have any more instruments ruined in the cargo hold. "I finally got so upset I said, 'I'm gonna get my pilot's license,'" he said. "I hardly ever go on the airlines if I can help it."

For the past 29 years Ceo has played viola for the Washington Ballet's performance of The Nutcracker. He made three round trips from Westerly to Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Maryland, last year to practice and perform with the ballet. "That's where the airplane comes in handy," he said. "It's a timesaver."

Ceo purchased his current airplane, N4624F, in January 1987 (his first airplane, a Cessna 205, was destroyed when another aircraft taxied into it). He said his greatest flying adventure took place in the summer of 1998, when he and another pilot flew the 206 to Fairbanks, Alaska. In 1997, Ceo was hired to teach a summer music course at the University of Alaska.

"I was going to take my airplane the first year, but the guy who was going to go with me broke his leg," he said. Rather than make the trek solo, Ceo flew the big iron that year. By the following summer his flying partner had recovered and was checked out in the 206. "It was a flight that you never forget. From Westerly to Fairbanks is something like 3,700 nautical miles. It took us six days. That's the best use of an airplane you can get."

Ceo turned 70 years old in 2003 and said he still tries to fly at least once a week. In his three decades of flying he has landed in 35 states of the United States and Canada's Yukon Territory, but says his favorite flying destination of all time is Fairbanks. "You can tie down for $2 a day there!" he noted with satisfaction. "You take off from Fairbanks, go 10 miles, and there's nothing but tundra."

So what does the future hold for this musical aviator? "Well, there are still 15 states left," he said.