Whenever you fly, you expect your pilot will have the highest qualifications. You take it for granted that he or she has the appropriate pilot’s license and training for that aircraft and has the experience and skills to safely navigate you to your destination. If you fly with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, there’s a chance your pilot not only has the skills to fly your airplane but he can also navigate the ship of state.
Willem-Alexander has been the King of the Netherlands since the 2013 abdication of his mother, Queen Beatrix. From all accounts, he bears this responsibility with competence and honor. It is not, however, a job to which he aspired.
The king has frequently said that if he had not been destined by birth to be a monarch, he would have chosen a career as an airline pilot. Indeed, that was the passion he pursued as a young man. He earned his private pilot license in 1985 when he was 18 years old. Two years later he earned his commercial license with an instrument rating. In 1989 he earned his multi-engine jet aircraft certification, and in 2001 he earned the coveted granddaddy of all pilot licenses: the Airline Transport Pilot license. Not necessarily relevant for this article, but still noteworthy, is the fact that he also earned a military pilot’s license as a member of the Royal Netherlands Air Force in 1994.
Somewhat disturbing is the fact that while he was working on his pilot license, he earned the nickname “Prince Pils,” after the name of a beer he was known to favor. In his youth, he began to develop the reputation of a reckless, undisciplined playboy. These qualities rarely serve anyone who aspires to a career in aviation, however. Fortunately, the partying gave way to a better nature as the future king traded his “Prince Pils” nickname for aviator wings.
Willem-Alexander obtained certification to fly the twin-engine medium-range Fokker 70. This worked out well for the royal family since that was the airplane of choice for most of his mother’s official travel. Unfortunately, the requirements for maintaining certification on an aircraft of that size involves putting in more hours in the cockpit than the family jaunts allow. To address this problem, Willem-Alexander looked to KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.
KLM has been a privately-operated company since 1965, but it retains “Royal” in its name. It seemed only fitting that this should be more than a marketing tool. In 1996, Willem-Alexander became one of KLM’s pilots, flying the airline’s Fokker 70 aircraft twice a month so he could maintain his certification.
While serving in this capacity, he did not use his name while welcoming passengers to the flight. “I can always say that I wish everyone a heartfelt welcome in the name of the captain and the crew,” he said. “I don’t have to say my own name. But most of the people don’t listen anyway.” While wearing his KLM uniform, he was rarely recognized. When people do connect the dates and see him for who he is, he said it typically generates a reaction of considerable surprise.
He continued to fly the Fokker 70s until KLM began replacing them with Boeing 737s. The future king was undeterred by this development and went through the lengthy and expensive process to become certified in the new aircraft.
The king said that flying is the perfect diversion from his royal responsibilities. He said, “You have an aircraft, passengers, and crew. You have responsibility for them, you can’t take your problems from the ground into the skies. You can completely disengage and concentrate on something else. That, for me, is the most relaxing part of flying.”
Although the king announced he was retiring from his regular flights in 2017, it is possible you may still encounter him in the friendly skies. The king is trained to fly the official government aircraft, a Boeing 737-700 business jet with the wings of a 737-800. It is doubtful he will allow his certification to lapse.
Read more fun facts about aviation.
Read more fun facts about royalty.