September 1, 2011
By Jill W. Tallman
Lisa (left) performs interpretative sign language to Ansel's song.
Singer-songwriter Ansel Brown couldn’t help but put his feelings into music about the family of aviators he acquired when he married Lisa Wixom Brown. The result, When You Fly—an ode to the incredible sights and emotions that pilots experience—has since become an anthem of sorts for the space shuttle program.
Brown, a student pilot with just one lesson in his logbook, wrote the song to express the passion for aviation exhibited by his wife and her family. “Up in Wisconsin, they call them the ‘Flying Wixoms,’” Brown said of Lisa; her parents, Larry and Susan; her brother, Chris; and her grandfather, Richard Wixom. All are pilots.
“You can feel the buzz when you’re around them,” Brown said of his in-laws. “They’re pilots who live, breathe, drink flying. It’s just incredible to be around. It’s very contagious. It immediately made me want to get my wings.” Lisa Wixom Brown and her father are air traffic controllers and flight instructors. Larry owns a Beech Staggerwing.
Brown had been a rising performer on the Nashville circuit, performing professionally since 2005 and winning recognition as the Country Music Association’s Debut Spotlight Artist in 2008. In 2009, he met Lisa, “and basically took two years off,” he said. As a newlywed, he didn’t want to be on the road, so he set his musical aspirations aside and took a marketing job. But he continued to write music.
Brown had started working on When You Fly in 2010 and finished it when he learned that Lisa’s grandfather was to be inducted into the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame. Driving home from the induction ceremony late at night, he and Lisa came up with the final few lines. “She was saying, ‘the sunset from above, the soft glow of city lights, a million stars at night,’ … It hit me immediately, and I was done,” Brown said.
He played the song for Lisa’s parents, “and I saw them crying as I sang it and I knew I had something,” Brown said. He recorded it in Nashville.
Almost before Brown could formulate his next steps, the Experimental Aircraft Association conducted a video interview with him about the song. Shortly after the video was aired, NASA came calling.
“That’s where my life flipped upside down,” Brown said. Just two weeks before the space shuttle Atlantis was set to depart on its final mission, NASA asked Brown to sing “When You Fly” for the July launch at the Kennedy Space Center. He would perform the song not only for the launch but also for the landing and for the final celebration for the employees of the space program.
“We were all around the [shuttle],” though they were not allowed inside, Brown said. “That alone was something I never dreamed I would be doing—never in my life. Being able to stand 100 yards from the Atlantis, right at the gate, right where it’s taking off on its last-ever mission, to see it standing there majestically…I was speechless.” Lisa joined Ansel onstage to perform the song in sign language.
They barely had time to unpack from that trip when the decision was made to go to AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., where the Browns would perform “When You Fly” for Women in Aviation members and the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators. If the shuttle employees were an appreciative audience, the pilots were that and more. There were a lot of tears shed at the WAI performance, and not all of those tears came from the ladies.
Later that morning, the Browns walked to Conoco-Phillips Plaza so that Lisa could participate in the WomenVenture group photo of women pilots. A WAI member stopped Ansel and introduced her friend, an AirVenture volunteer who hadn’t been able to see the Browns perform. Ansel sang a few verses a capella. She, too, began to weep.
“That is the neatest part of the song for me, just to meet somebody—whether NASA or aviation-related—and just start singing the song to them, and see the emotion in their face just well up,” Brown recalled.
When AirVenture wrapped, the Browns headed back to Florida to participate in NASA’s “We Made History” shuttle program celebration. You can view a YouTube video here.
“Next year is the year I think the song will start shining for aviation,” Brown said. “I want to get out and get to as many airshows as I can get to.” He hopes it will become a theme for everyone who loves aviation, and that it helps people to understand the special nature of flying. “This is what you’ll feel if you become a pilot. If you’re a Young Eagle, this is how you’re going to feel one day. You might already be dreaming this. I hope it has a lasting impact.”
When You Fly is now available on iTunes, and you can learn more about Ansel Brown via his website and his Facebook page.
AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who owns a Piper Cherokee 140.
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