Ever since I heard that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was assembling an amazing collection of historic fighter planes, I wondered if it...
Ever since I heard that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was assembling an amazing collection of historic fighter planes, I wondered if it was more than just a billionaire’s hobby.
Could there be a connection between Seattle’s aerospace history and Microsoft’s genesis?That’s one of the topics Allen and I discussed Friday morning when the Flying Heritage Collection, a museum displaying his warbirds, opened to the public at Paine Field in Everett.
Allen also talked about introducing technology to kids, his friend Bill Gates’ retirement from Microsoft and his effort to master “Purple Haze.” Edited excerpts from the interview:
Q: This was an airplane town before it was a software town, and planes were a big deal to kids growing up here. Is that where your interest began?
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A: When I was a kid it was the golden era of spaceflight — they had the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo shots occurring on a monthly basis.
I went to Ravenna school in North Seattle, and they would wheel in a TV on a cart and you would watch the launch. It was very dramatic. Then I would go home and work on my little plastic models of rockets.
You’re right, aerospace was in the air and all of us were fascinated by it.
I’d ride my bicycle to the model stores, buy models and put them together.
To be involved in restoring the actual planes to flying condition and put them on display here has been a really rewarding experience for me.
Q: Were you more a rocket-model guy or a plane-model guy?
A: I did more plane models than anything else, but I did a lot of rockets, too; I didn’t do ships. I used to try to paint them with accurate camouflage.
My father used to take me to the University of Washington library and let me wander around in the stacks; I’d take out a “Jane’s Airplanes of WWII” book — these big thick books that list every plane, the horsepower and so forth. I used to devour those.
It must have just come from the atmosphere of aviation and rocketry and all that. I just found it fascinating, and still do to this day.
Q: How did you go from that to software and computers? Did it get you thinking about the cool things machines could do and pique your interest in engineering?
A: I used to be fascinated by the engines; the internal workings of the planes fascinated me, too.
A lot of software engineering is about dissecting how things work and the inner parts of operating systems or programming languages, which Bill Gates and I really plunged into as teenagers.
There’s definitely some component of that fascination with the interior working of things and the performance of things. But I do have to say … the idea of flight, the freedom of flight and the beauty of these planes [are] something that’s really compelling.
And the sound of them — if you hear the sound of the Merlin engine in a Spitfire or a P-51 or some of these planes, that’s just a rare thing to be able to experience. You imagine them flying in formation overhead, in the Battle of Britain, in dogfights fighting against each other. Those are just really interesting images and fascinating.
Q: Growing up here we heard those same motors powering hydroplanes in the summer. I sometimes think about operating systems being like motors in a computer; I wonder if subconsciously you and Bill were thinking that’s what made the action happen. You went there with your computer hobby and career.
A: Yeah, it’s the interest with the inner details and the fact that conceptually you have to start with the whole of an operating system and decompose it into particular parts. It just was so unusual that Bill and I got to do those things when we were in our mid- to late-teens at Lakeside because there was Computer Center [a time-share computing company that let students use its system]; we were able to get on and do those explorations.
By emphasizing the innovative and imagination/engineering components of airplanes in this museum, I think at a level that hasn’t been done before, we’re trying to emphasize that aspect and show how all those different innovations came together and produced some incredible planes and then led to the aircraft we all fly today.
Q: Have you ridden in many of these planes?
A: I have ridden in the Fieseler Storch observation plane, which I think Mussolini at one point escaped for a few weeks in one. … I have flown that, but I’m not yet a pilot.
Q: Why haven’t you taken flying lessons?
A: That’s a great question. Because I’m usually busy with so many things and becoming a pilot is a serious commitment of time. In the past I’ve always been a little concerned that I’d leave off an item — like putting down the landing gear — from the checklist, I’m thinking about so many different things. But I hope to get around to it soon.
Q: Are you going to buy a 787, by the way?
A: No. I do have a number of large jets. I fly the Trail Blazers around on one of them, which is well known, and a couple other planes. But, no, something that big is way out of what I would ever do.
Q: Were you involved with creating Microsoft’s “Flight Simulator”?
A: No, I wasn’t, but I think it’s a great piece of software. That’s one of the great things personal-computer technology has been able to do — enable people to learn the rudiments of flying just through a personal computer and then hopefully graduate to flying actual planes or helicopters.
That’s another thread I’m really fascinated by or interested in — you see that at Experience Music Project — which is initial exposure for somebody, at a young age, to get them hooked or interested or fascinated by an area of technology that may actually be a life-changing thing. You end up being a pilot or end up being a musician because you picked up a guitar and thought, “Hey, I can play this.”
In my case I had a baby-sitter come over with a guitar when I was 16. I played violin before and I thought, “Hey, you can play a song with three chords! I can learn to do this in an hour!” Of course, then 20 years later I can halfway play “Purple Haze.”
Those early experiences are something that I’m a real believer in as being life-changing events. I continue to this day to love to go to different museums.
Q: You seem to be sharing more of your stuff, basically opening up your collections. What sort of legacy would you like to leave here?
A: I think it’s important to give back in whatever ways you can. I think and hope that many people share my fascination with airplanes and aerospace and music.
I tried to find ways to either start institutions or projects or ways of giving back that involve showing innovation or instigating innovation or fomenting innovation and education involving technologies.
Q: How are things going with the museum at Microsoft’s birthplace in Albuquerque?
A: I think that’s been very successful. It has some great shots of me and Bill in the early days and some of the computers we worked with.
Of course, this month is interesting because with Bill’s retirement from Microsoft. It’s just interesting to revisit all those things. He just sent me a photo from the early days, a couple of days ago. It’s just a time to reminisce and think how far we’ve come. It’s been 33, 34 years since all that happened.
Back then we had kind of the kernel of an idea of what a personal computer could be and now everybody has one of these [picking up his BlackBerry], which is a personal computer, or mini-laptops or whatever. Just an amazing transformation has occurred since then.
Q: Are you going to mark Bill’s retirement by bringing him here to play with your planes?
A: I’ve talked to him about it. He wants to come up at some point, but he’s a very busy man right now.
Q: Are you going to take him out to dinner or something?
A: We have dinners regularly. We love to see movies together. The thing I always tell people about Bill that they may not know is, he’s really a lot of fun to hang out with.
We used to go to movies a lot together. We would predict what’s going to happen in the movie. If something funny happened, then we would just crack up. We still to this day have a lot of fun just hanging out and talking and brainstorming about future things.
Now his focus is shifting so much to philanthropy and we’ve done a few things there in the documentary area, with funding of local institutions to do biomedical research. I’m sure we’re going to do many more things in the future.
Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.