- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
The king of the Netherlands has a secret identity: For the past 21 years, King Willem-Alexander has secretly been a commercial airline pilot.
The Netherlands’ 50-year-old king guest copilots two flights a month for KLM, the country’s flag carrier airline. All the while, his passengers had been left in the dark. He finally divulged his secret double life to Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf in an interview published Wednesday.
He said it’s more of a hobby than anything. “You have a plane, passengers, and crew and you are responsible for them. You can’t take your problems with you off the ground,” he said. “You can completely switch off for a while and focus on something else,” he said, describing flying a jetliner in terms most guys his age reserve for a round of golf.
While KLM would be hard-pressed to say no to their monarch if he asked to fly, he’s apparently a really good pilot.
“For the relatively few flying hours the king makes, he is always very sharp. He knows the procedures well. Very well,” said KLM captain Maarten Putman, who frequently sits in the left-hand seat alongside the king. Willem-Alexander served in the Dutch air force and it was no secret he had a pilot’s license, but no one knew just how often he put the license to use.
Though he wants to keep flying now that his secret is out, he has his work cut out for him. KLM is retiring the narrow-body regional jet he’s used to piloting, the Fokker 70 Cityhopper, for a new fleet of Boeing 737s. Tuesday was his last flight in a Cityhopper, which KLM uses for short flights primarily to Germany, the United Kingdom, and Norway. He’ll have to get certified on the 737 to keep flying — KLM doesn’t allow any safety shortcuts, even for royalty.
He waxed enthusiastic about retraining for the 737, a bigger plane that can fly longer distances than the Cityhopper. “It also seemed nice to fly to other destinations one day, with more passengers and bigger distances. That was the real motive for training on the 737,” he said.
Few of his passengers notice who he is when he’s walking through the airport with his pilot’s uniform on. He never gives his name when he goes over the intercom, so other than an occasional passenger who recognizes his voice over the intercom, he can fly completely incognito.
“The advantage is that I can always say I am speaking on behalf of the captain and crew to welcome them on board, so I don’t have to say my name,” he told De Telegraaf.
“But then, most people don’t listen anyway.”
Photo credit: Patrick van Katwijk/Getty Images