By Hal Bryan – 11 April 2008
Everybody knows that the life of a Microsoft Flight Simulator Community Evangelist is a glamorous one. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to places like Birmingham, Munich, Barcelona, Denver, and Puyallup. I’ve met politicians, actors, test pilots, and astronauts. Until recently, however, I’d never met royalty. This, then, is the story of a flying Prince who came to visit, and an erstwhile jester who managed not to offend.
Several weeks ago, we got word from our Corporate Affairs team that His Royal Highness Prince Philippe, Duke of Brabant and Crown Prince of Belgium, was coming to Microsoft, and, being a pilot, he specifically wanted to see Flight Simulator. Our studio manager, Shawn Firminger, started prepping his PowerPoint deck and asked me to start writing and rehearsing my demo.
Instead of rehearsing, per se, I did a bit of research. I looked at the scenery in and around Brussels in Flight Simulator X and spotted a few landmarks to show off. The most striking thing in the area (and perhaps my favorite custom scenery object in all the virtual world) is the Atomium, built for the Expo 58 World’s Fair. This building is a model of an iron crystal, scaled up roughly 165 billion times. (I didn’t bother looking for the European Community office at Archimède 73, since whatever remodeling they’ve done with our $1.3 Billion fine wouldn’t be reflected in our scenery.)
But I digress.
In addition to scouting scenery, I looked around for some appropriate aircraft. The first thing I was looking for was a Stampe, a classic Belgian biplane with a number of design elements in common with my current favorite airplane to fly in the real world, the de Havilland Tiger Moth. In this instance, the AVSIM file library came to the rescue, and I found a beautiful freeware Stampe SV4, built by Eric Dantes, Jean-Pierre Bourgeois, and Alayn Gourio. I’d learned that His Royal Highness used to fly jet fighters, but there were conflicting reports as to whether he’d flown the Mirage V or the F-16. Given that the Belgian Air Component is currently operating the F-16, that seemed the safest bet. My friend Winfried Diekmann from Aerosoftin Germany came to the rescue here, giving me access to a Beta version of their upcoming F-16. Not only is it gorgeous, but they just happened to have a Belgian livery. My thanks to Winfried and also to Mathijs Kok and Hubertus Fuest for saving the day.
So, other than messing about installing add-ons for FSX and trying to figure out how to get Microsoft to pay for me to go visit the Atomium in person, most of my “rehearsal” involved gloating about the upcoming demo to anyone who would listen and many who wouldn’t. I’m now convinced that, unfortunately, there’s really no such thing as “royalty by association.”
The date crept ever closer, and the time, location, and size of the event kept evolving. The one thing that didn’t change, however, was the dress code: business casual. We really didn’t believe this – business casual to entertain royalty? Even considering that this meant “real business casual” (slacks and a button-up shirt), not “Microsoft business casual” (socks encouraged), we were skeptical and kept double-checking. The answer remained unchanged: “Yes, it’s business casual, and we mean that, and we’re wondering if you could stop asking us for an hour or two?”
At the end of the day on the Friday before the event, another minor schedule change was sent out, and, oh, by the way, just a quick reminder that this event is “business formal”. I’d been looking for an excuse to get a new jacket and went shopping that weekend, and somehow came home with two, not to mention a few ties, two pairs of pants, new shoes, four new shirts and a new belt. I don’t know exactly how it happened – I remember walking into the store, seeing some bright lights, hearing myself use the phrase “oh, why not?” several times, and then I was home hanging things in the closet.
I took the PC I was going to use over to the Executive Briefing Center (EBC) in the evening, mostly because I didn’t want to have to set it up Monday morning, since it would have needed to be in place by 7:00 AM for the Secret Service / Bellevue Police bomb unit security sweep. I got everything going that evening, tested the projection system, and even managed to build a rollaway cockpit on a wooden cart tucked discreetly next to the podium, thanks to a joystick, rudder pedals, and 30 feet of powered USB extension.
At this point, of course, any lingering readers are burning with curiosity as to why this cockpit contraption I came up with had to be discreet and capable of rolling away. Everyone on the Microsoft side as well as a number on the Belgian side including the charge d’affaires (my next title will have an apostrophe in it, so help me!) was extremely enthusiastic about the Prince getting “hands on” with FSX. However, other than the instructions as to when to address His Royal Highness as “Your Royal Highness” vs. the colloquial back-slapping of simply “Your Highness,” there was only one strict instructional bit of protocol: no one, especially me from my position in front of the audience, was allowed to actually offer or otherwise suggest that HRH take a virtual spin – it would only happen if he himself were to ask. So, I did my best to be prepared for that eventuality without actually looking the least bit as if I was.
Monday morning, I showed up at the EBC and reported to the Evergreen room at about 8:00. I milled and mingled, my immaculate new jacket (and shirt and tie and belt and pants and shoes) steadfastly belying my lack of any sort of savoir faire. I spent some time getting reacquainted with Mike Egan, our Director of Corporate Affairs. I’ve worked with Mike on a couple of museum projects and, strangely, he frequently works with my half-niece-in-law. I met His Highness’ aide-de-camp (maybe my next title will be hyphenated, too!) and quickly demonstrated my “where did that come from?” cockpit. Most importantly, I sat with key members of the delegations through the first presentations of the day, before the Prince and our CEO, Steve Ballmer, were slated to arrive.
Eventually, there was a break in the presentations, a great deal of hustle and bustle, and a lot of rearranging of tables while a surprisingly large number of people flitted about, repeatedly pointing to the same place and saying “Now, when they arrive, they’re going to walk straight up through here.” After about 20 minutes of this, the phrase “they’re here” started cropping up, and eventually took hold, only to go suddenly silent as all eyes turned toward the entrance to the room.
Steve Ballmer said a few words, laughed loudly and did some perfunctory sweating. The official pictures were taken in front of the flags, then Ballmer offered his niceties and left. His Highness and the assorted delegations took their assigned seats and the next presentation, this one devoted to “Microsoft Values”, got under way.
And then it was our turn.
We received a nice, brief introduction from the Corporate Vice President of Something I Missed, then I ducked off to the side as Shawn crisply presented his slides.
Afterward, my mike went live, I thanked Shawn, greeted His Royal Highness and the distinguished guests, then task-switched the PC to FSX, already running with the Stampe sitting at the airport in Antwerp, ready to go.
At least, that’s what was supposed to be there, instead of the black screen and the PC that had just hung.
I smiled, and, while my fingers swiftly reset everything, I made some comment to the effect that I’m obviously far more important at Microsoft than I thought, since this sort of thing normally only happens to Steve and Bill. Pause for laughter, including my first Royal chuckle. Flight Sim mercifully came back to life just as I was finishing my off-the-cuff history of the Stampe, and its connection to my world of real flying. I feigned embarrassment at the “pin up” (really just a charming snapshot of a vintage aviatrix) on the instrument panel, then showed a bit of the airplane and the scenery.
At that point, His Highness, smiling broadly, half-yelled from the audience “Can I try it?”Next I switched to the R-22 helicopter, casually pointing out the differences and similarities to the R-44, which, if memory serves, Your Highness has recently purchased? (A silent thank you to the charge d’affaires for having fed me that little tidbit a couple of hours earlier. But I didn’t rehearse it!) I flew the room around Brussels, pointing out the Atomium and a few other key landmarks. I explained that I wouldn’t fly any closer to a couple of the buildings, since my new friend, the aforementioned charge d’affaires, told me earlier that it looked like some of them were not quite in the right places. Pause for more laughter, and a little more after that.
I answered honestly, though with considerable respect, naturally: “That will, of course, be my pleasure, Your Highness, but, if you don’t mind, there is one other thing I’d like to show you first.” The Prince responded “But of course! You’re the boss!” and laughed. I laughed, then the room laughed, then the Prince laughed louder, and there was a light smattering of applause.
I showed off the Belgian F-16, happily chattering about our global perspective and our view of “product as platform”, then reset FSX and rolled my makeshift cockpit to the appropriate spot aligned with the center of the screen. A staffer somehow conjured an oversized leather chair out of nowhere, and then I talked the Prince through a short flight in the R-22. At one point, I actually had television cameras resting on each shoulder, so eager were the media to capture His Highness playing with a computer almost like a real person. This went on for 15 minutes or so, and, at that point, we were both just pilots, chatting easily about what bits were realistic, and which were less so, etc. I offered to have him try another aircraft, and he asked for the F-16.
I realized then that there was one, well, actually, two key flaws with my rollaway cockpit sitting 30 feet from the host PC. The keyboard and mouse weren’t on the USB extensions, and had to stay at the podium, and there was literally no way for me to get there through the crush of the media. So I caught Shawn’s eye, and called to him as clearly and politely as I could: “Shawn – please press Alt, A, A, L, then Enter”. Faster than you can say “why does it take these menus so long to load?”, we’d switched to the F-16. I turned back to the Prince, who was smiling, and said “It seems my boss is good for something “¦ ” More laughter, and a quick glance at Shawn who grinned while mercifully failing to fire me on the spot.
As well as it went, I was actually happiest for the three things I managed not to say, even though they were constantly lurking uncomfortably close to the front of my mind:The Prince did some aerobatics, we chatted a bit more, then he landed and stood up while the room applauded again. He thanked me, the house lights came up, and everyone started winding their way around to their tables for lunch. Mike from Corporate Affairs shook my hand, clapped me on the back and said “Oh man, oh man “¦ we owe you BIG time “¦ that was a home RUN!” (apparently, this is a sports reference of some kind) and each time I bumped into him throughout lunch, and he said and did the exact same thing.
- John Lennon’s quip from the Beatles’ 1963 Royal Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth, et al, “Those of you in the cheaper seats clap your hands, the rest of you just rattle your jewelry.”
- The line from Monty Python’s Australian Philosopher’s sketch, allegedly quoting the Prime Minister speaking to the Queen. “It’s hot enough to boil a monkey’s bum in here, your Highness (sic).”
- After briefly meeting an executive from Telenet Flanders in Antwerp, Homer Simpson popped into my head complaining about his neighbor. Mercifully, this was quickly squelched by the sobering image of poppies from McCrae’s classic poem, and I maintained some semblance of decorum.
Some time later, the Prince flew home to Princess Mathilde, and, so far as I know, lived happily ever after. I ate lunch with some Belgian press and fielded some follow-up questions, then did a short interview on camera for Vlaamse Televisie Maatschappij before quietly slipping back to the office, a whole series of international incidents happily avoided.