Flying Down to Reno

And Now . . . The Rest of the Story
Heading into Reno, Nevada last September, I was inevitably reminded of a trip I’d taken to the city just about exactly 15 years prior, back in September of 1992. I’d taken off from Geiger International Airport in Spokane, Washington, in a Cessna 172 (grossly over-) loaded with 3 friends and weekend baggage.

There was a girl at the FBO with friendly eyes and a quick laugh that were more interesting to me at the time than the fact that she’d misunderstood my fuel order and given me half as much gas as I’d asked for. The fuel gauges in that airplane were wildly inaccurate and tended to read a half tank high until it had gone down to below about one eighth. I might have seen this when I “dipped” the tank during my preflight, but I was in a hurry – the airplane was about 100 pounds over gross weight, it was getting hot, and my planned route was going to take us across some rough landscape, out of range of any navigational aids, so I wanted as much daylight as possible.

Several hours and at least that many more foolish-young-pilot decisions later, I was lost over desert mountains in the dark, effectively out of gas, and asked to respond to a ghoulish request from Oakland Center to “…state (the number of) souls on board.”  There were four souls on board, though I’d have sold mine in a heartbeat for more gas or the sight of an airport.

That trip ended successfully, and the lessons I learned have helped keep me and my passengers safe ever since. This latest trip ended successfully, for me and mine anyway, as well, but, as I’ve mentioned in a prior post, three pilots were killed at this year’s event.  Fitting, if grim reminders from a city known for its gambling that, sometimes, it just comes down to luck. But, while each of these incidents cast their own shadows over the place, it seems a much better idea to break the spell and talk about the rest of it, the parts where nobody died, or even came close.

The Arrival
As I mentioned about eleventeen years ago in the Prologue,  I’d recruited a team of employees, MVPs, and volunteers to help demo the Flight Simulator X:Acceleration expansion pack at the National Championship Air Races. For anyone to whom it isn’t terribly old news, Acceleration features the Reno course along with other single-and-multiplayer racing missions. The timing was mostly good, since Acceleration RTM’d (Release To Manufacturing – software-speak for the moment when we take our stuff and give it to the people whose job it is to burn DVDs by the zillions and stuff them into boxes for sale) just a few days after the show, making the Air Races our de facto launch event. I say “mostly good”, not because I’m equivocal and like using adverbs as adjectives, but because this also meant that a lot of the team was so busy finishing the product that they couldn’t break away to help show it off. In spite of the aforementioned mostly part of the mostly good timing, however, I had strong support from the team, not to mention a great group of volunteers.

15 Characters in Search of an Exit
The ragtag, fugitive band I brought included my boss, Community and Partner Development Manager Brett Schnepf, and Experience Architect Mike Singer, also from Brett’s team. Test, Design, Development, Program Management, and Art were each represented by Mike Lambert, Paul Lange and Brandon Seltz, Susan Ashlock, Eric Matteson, and Irvin Gee, respectively. Joining us from elsewhere in the recesses of Microsoft was Milen Lazarov, and rounding things out (by which I mean “doing all the work”) were Flight Sim “alums” Roy McMillion and Matt Gamboa, MVPs Brian Gefrich and Norman Blackburn, and homeless drunks pilots and “friends of the team” Dan Sallee and Scott Marshall.

It’s amazing to me to see the number of volunteers we get from outside the team (in Milen’s case) and outside the company to help support us at events like these. While I have to admit that I’d jump at the chance myself if I were still strictly a Flight Sim customer (as opposed to a Flight Sim customer and employee), I still think we’re remarkably lucky to have such a dedicated and passionate group of people willing to come to the rescue. I’ve been reasonably pleased with, say, the Dyson vacuum cleaner I use at home, but I can’t imagine working their booth at a vacuum cleaner convention. Yes, I suppose that it is a terribly unfair comparison, but I’m the one doing the typing so just sit comfortably and leave the awkward analogies to me.

Messrs. K & H Assure the Public, Their Production Will Be Second to None
I’d also be remiss (not that I remember being miss the first time) if I didn’t mention Steve Mallinson.  Steve works for a legitimate-sounding company called The Production Network, and we employ their services on those occasions when A) we have a major event to run and 2) we’re behaving intelligently. Anyone who has read much of anything here or seen us at Oshkosh, AOPA expos, and now Reno knows that we have a large booth property, designed and beautifully realized by our friends at Moto Art. Contrary to my long-held assumptions, this booth doesn’t just magically appear whenever and wherever we need it, like Billy Mumy wishing things into a cornfield in The Twilight Zone. No, the booth actually has to be stored somewhere. And transported. And maintained, and even upgraded.

That’s where Steve and TPN come in. Case in point: When I staggered into an early planning meeting for the Reno  show, unshaven and reeking of Hot Tamales, I blurted something incoherent about decorating the centerpiece “control tower” of our display to look like one of the pylons at Reno. Steve took the idea and ran with it, along with every other random request I had – shelves, coat hooks, improved cooling for the computers, dancing girls, new logo banners, mid-desert wireless Internet – ideas that could only dream of making it to the back of a napkin. You name it (or, actually, I named it) and Steve just made it happen. I only hope we pay him enough.

(Pink and) Blue Meanies in Pepperland
We stayed in a hotel called the Peppermill in downtown Reno. I’m presuming that the place was memorable, since I can still see the subtly understated explosion of pink and blue neon that covered every inch of the decor any time I close my eyes. The rooms were spacious (or at least seemed to be, the mirrors made it difficult to find the edges), and included the wonderfully named Robo-Bar, with a sign right next to the lock that read “no key required”.

Another delightfully anachronistic retro mod con was the Valet-o-Matic, an automated scanner that, through the miracle of an allegedly harmless bombardment of sizzlingly visible laser radiation, summoned guests’ cars from the valet, with a functional success rate approaching 30%. If I concentrate, I can still smell the ozone crackling off the back of my hand. Not to be outdone, the human service was courteous and helpful, though it will take a team of economists another several years to make sense out of the 33-page receipt they gave me for my expense report, including a single unspecified charge for exactly one cent.

The Biggest Little City in the World (and home of the squandered oxymoron)
I’ve found that the overall feel of the hotel matched that of the city itself, in microcosm. Reno is like a high school kid dressed up for homecoming: he cleans up pretty well, but the tux is rented and a bit out-of-date, he fiddles with his tie and cummerbund a little nervously, and hopes that nobody knows that he’s not nearly as sophisticated as he’s trying to act. Once you get past the “Shut up – we are just as good as Vegas!” attitude of some of the casinos, though, you’ll find that the people are nice and approachable, and the city seems to relax quite a bit.

Entschuldigung, bitte, mein Gambling ist nicht so gut
Being an unabashed Ian Fleming aficionado, it was inevitable that I spend at least a short time in a casino, preferably playing James Bond’s card game of choice, baccarat (not Texas Hold-Em, as shown in the otherwise fairly faithful Daniel Craig adaptation of Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale). The fact that I really had no idea how to play ultimately worked in my favor as I threw myself on the mercy of the terribly bored looking dealer sitting ruefully alone at the only baccarat table in the Peppermill. The dealer, a kind and slightly maternal blonde woman called Hyde, was a patient instructor, once she gave up trying to convince me that I shouldn’t play this game, especially at $25 a hand, until I know how.

As I eventually, learned, the baccarat I played that night is not the same as what features so prominently in the Bond novels. The European variant that Fleming describes in such detail is also known as chemin de fer, and lends itself to complex strategies, careful decision making, and alternating alliances and antagonism among players. The variation found in American casinos is known as punto banco, which is French for “no skill or thinking required.” Basically, punto banco is like Blackjack, though the goal is to get to a value of 9, rather than 21, most of the cards aren’t worth anything, and the player has no say in any aspect of it except where on the table to pile up the chips before they’re removed by the nice lady in the red vest.

It goes like this: First, you place your bet by putting your chips in either the box labeled “Player” or the box labeled “Banker”. (It took some time for me to grasp the idea that I wasn’t the player, and the dealer wasn’t the banker, though the complete absence of anything for me to do other than to try to pick a winner helped drive the point home.) Once you’ve bet, the dealer deals hands for the player (who isn’t you) and the banker (who isn’t her) and each hand stands or gets “hit” according to the proscribed rules. One of these two fictional characters wins and the other loses, or sometimes they tie. You, the real player, better described perhaps as an invested observer, win or lose based on who you guessed would win before things got complicated with the introduction of cards and numbers and things. Truly, you don’t so much play this game as watch it, and, because it’s a 50/50 shot, the equivalent of betting on a coin toss, it has some of the lowest “house advantage” of any casino game. Of course, even when you win, the house gets a commission.

Interestingly enough, I did ultimately win. I started with $100, and walked away with $200. I suppose it was only fitting that I won at a game where you only pretend to participate, since the only reason I played was the fact that I was inspired by a fictional character, usually under cover, no less. Not to mention the fact that I spend my life working on … a simulation. Before I follow this to its logical conclusion, one which most likely involves some kind of existential breakdown, I’ll switch gears and head for a more important bit.

On With The Show
Our presence at this show was the most extensive we’ve ever had, a total of 22 computers setup in two different locations. The first was in the general admission area, behind the grandstands, and consisted of the Moto Art booth – 8 PC’s stuffed in airliner galley carts mated to bits of TBM Avengers with a control-tower-turned-race-pylon in the middle – along with an additional 8 PC’s at desks for competition races. The second location was in the racing pit area, only accessible to pilots, crew, event staff, and those members of the general public who either paid an additional fee to get in, or just wandered up when nobody was looking. We took over a substantial portion of a hangar for 6 demo PC’s and a bar, and built a VIP lounge under a tent out front. The lounge and the hangar were decorated with Moto Art bits – a radial engine desk, a DC-9 cowling bar, and chromed propellers. Moto Art also brought a set of first-class airliner seats that reclined in case the heat, lack of oxygen, and free-flowing drinks weren’t enough to induce napping.

Our two spots were quite a ways apart, and the distance fluctuated wildly with the ambient temperature. It was the shortest at about 11:00 AM, while the  beastly afternoon heat and the spiky morning cold each tried to outdo the other in making the walk seem longer and longer. One of the many side effects of the walk (or at least that’s where I have chosen to lay the blame) was my constant and shocked misreading of a sign at a booth selling handdipped corn dogs. Have a look at the picture to get an idea of what I imagined I saw, and thank Photoshop for helping me bring my “dreams” to life.

V is for Visitor
Both locations proved to be well placed, and gave visitors the impression that Microsoft was everywhere, but not in an oppressive “call the DOJ” sort of way. In fact, the reception from the crowd and the treatment we received from the event staff was fantastic. Steady streams of spectators, pilots, and crew got hands-on with Acceleration, on their own or in scheduled races, and the response was excellent. There was a nice mix of “I had no idea I could do this sort of thing on a computer!” and “It’s about time you guys added racing!”, with only the occasional “When are you guys going to do a version for the Xbox360 / Mac / iPhone?” and the odd “The bartender says I have to talk to you if I want more than two drinks…” A man I called “the guy in the hat, no, not that one, the one who hugged Paul” turned up several times to announce that we’d be fools to charge anything less than $200 per copy.

The multiplayer races that we had at the booth were far more successful than I’d expected, frankly, since most attempts to introduce any kind of organization to the crowded chaos we’re used to end in a whimper of cat-herding futility. This time, though, thanks in large part to the crisp efficiency of Mike Singer, (and the booming note of authority lent to his voice by the portable PA we found at Wal-Mart) the races ran smoothly, and proved to be a major attraction. The race winners became minor celebrities, and a number of them have since received spectacular prizes by mail.

A Day at the Races
Other than the regrettable and somber periods when the air port was closed to investigate one of the accidents, there was a pretty steady stream of aviation activity each day. Each of the race classes – Sport, Biplane, Formula One, T-6, Jet, and Unlimited – generally each flew one race per day. The jet class was just introduced in 2002, and was initially limited to a single type, the L-39. This year, the class was expanded to include “…any non-afterburning jet with less than 15 degrees of wing sweep”, which opened the competition to L-29s, T-33s, and a T-2 Buckeye. While the jets are popular, the undisputed stars of the races are the airplanes in the Unlimited class. Unlimiteds must be piston-powered and weigh a minimum of 4,500 pounds, and the majority of them are WWII vintage warbirds, or at least they started out that way before some extraordinarily extensive modification. P-51s, Hawker (regular and Sea) Furies, and F-8 Bearcats are frequently seen, along with Yak-3s, along with extremely rare types such as the spectacular F-7F Tigercat.

Between races, there were a number of traditional airshow acts, like real-life “Loopy Larry” Kent Pietsch who flies a technically brilliant “comedy act” in his Interstate Cadet, culminating in a landing on top of a moving RV. Also flying was Dan Buchanan who does a well-choreographed aerobatic routine in a hang glider. Remarkably, Dan is a paraplegic, a fact that usually isn’t sprung on the audience by an overly melodramatic local narrator until after he lands. Dan is a spectacular pilot, and his routine is inspirational, but there’s a great deal more to his flying than the fact that he does it in spite of a disability. There’s just something off-putting about a narrator smugly, almost happily announcing “That’s right folks, Dan can’t get out of his hang glider yet … because he CAN’T WALK! There’s his ground crew, bringing him his wheel chair BECAUSE HE CAN’T MOVE HIS LEGS AT ALL! How about that?!?!”

Rounding out the show each day was a typically gorgeous performance by my long-time favorites, the Canadian Forces Snowbirds. After their last routine of the show, the split into a loose trail formation and ran several laps around the pylons before departing. Pure class. And speaking of class, and the Snowbirds, for some spectacular pictures of the team, check out Roy McMillion’s shots here.


Another Bowl of Whiskey, Mister Bryan?

This trip gave us the chance to spend some quality time with some friends of the team. Dave Hall and Donovan Fell from the previously-mentioned Moto Art always make good company, and it’s a pleasure to see so much of their work firsthand. Brian Terwilliger, director of the film One Six Right, popped in a few times, as did Ron Kaplan of the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Dale “Snort” (yes I know the story, and no, I’m not telling) Snodgrass and Rolf Getty from American Top Gun Productions, and their associates Dan McCue and Sean Carroll rounded out our entourage, or we theirs, it was difficult to tell.

Rolf also works for Sky Blue Radio, and takes a persistent and sadistic delight in ambushing me for interviews and commentary. I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, having heard Rolf’s voice in a nightmare, his signature “I’m here with Hal Bryan…” ringing in my ears. Then, mercifully, I close my eyes and take comfort in counting the flashing retinal sears of the Peppermill lobby as I drift back to sleep.

Dale, Dan, and Sean are all consummate pilots and frequently gentlemen. Dale, retired from the US Navy and the highest time F-14 Tomcat pilot in the world now flies Mustangs and an F-86 in airshows, often as part of a heritage flight. Dan is a retired airline pilot who flies, among other things, an F-4U Corsair, and is actively prepping a dozen Northrop F-5’s for sale to airshow pilots and collectors. Yes, he promised me that I could fly one. Sean is also an airshow pilot, and has flown his Yak-3 at Reno in years’ past. At dinner our first night, shortly after I toasted the table with a bottle of Scotch (a wonderfully generous gift hand delivered by Norman Blackburn), using a soup bowl since my quaich was, regrettably, at home, we all got to be friends. Their insights, not to mention their introductions, made the show a lot richer for all of us.

Nothing Delicate About the Sound of This Thunder
Another friend of the team, Mitch Carley, was responsible for what was  certainly the single most memorable evening of the trip, the world premiere of the film Thunder Over Reno. Mitch, known to a lot of airshow goers as the man behind Duggy, the constantly smiling DC-3, wrote, produced, and directed the film, a lot of which was shot on location at the Reno races. The film is billed as “the world’s fastest love story”, but, for those of us in the theater watching it, time unquestionably stood still. It’s the quintessential coming-of-age tale of a farm boy who makes good, hearkening back to the classic and familiar stories of adventure, love, loss, and redemption that we’ve seen over and over for years.

The acting was raw and enthusiastic, with romantic leads Hawk Younkins (yes, that is his real name) and Natasha Yi throwing such effort behind their performances that even their quietest and most introspective scenes weren’t in danger of being drowned out by the titular thunder of the flying sequences. (A certain hot-shot Yak pilot at my table who shall remain nameless was actually tearing up at one point. But don’t tell him I told you.) Even with all this competition, pilots Jimmy Leeward and Bob Odegaard (who was also the Executive Producer) turned in some of the strongest acting performances, playing themselves.

From the moment the guests arrived, filing into the hotel lobby past two Mustangs and a red and white Super Corsair that had been trucked over for the premiere (and that all featured in the film) to the instant they left as they credits rolled, there was something palpable in the air. It was truly an experience, and those of us who attended could hardly imagine the luck that brought us there. For fans of the genre, it’s a must-see, and I can hardly wait for the DVD to take its rightful place in my personal collection.

Not Such a Bitter End
The show wrapped up, as it does every year, with the final race of the Unlimiteds. Thanks to Snort and company, I watched most of it from a seating area atop the support trailer for the Miss America P-51. The last race was certainly the best, with more passing than most, a number of emergencies (including a stuck throttle for the winner,  Rare Bear), but all were handled skillfully and ended safely. I remember a pretty groggy dinner that night, ordering from a French menu that I wouldn’t have understood even if I wasn’t half asleep, then my usual night-before-departure ritual of “pack up and pass out”.

This wasn’t an easy show, in many ways, though much of it went as smoothly as the best of them. But, in spite of everything, it was a great trip, and another excellent opportunity to get face-to-face with the people who pay our salaries.

Hey, Wait! Before You Go . . .
Interestingly, my skill at games that require absolutely none paid off one last time  as I was leaving the hotel after checkout: On a whim, I dropped a single dollar in a slot machine, and won $100. Given that the $100 I won was just a piece of paper with “$100” printed on it that I’d have to give to the casino cashier in order to get another piece of paper with “$100” and a picture of Ben Franklin printed on it, I decided to push my luck. I sauntered jauntily (which is something to see, believe me) into the “high stakes” slot machine room, put my $100 chit in the first Gamblotron I saw, pressed a button, and out came a new chit. I assumed it was simply a “thank you” note, given that I was now officially a high roller, but, actually, I’d won again. $200, this time.

I’m not normally known for, shall we say, under-doing things, but, in this case my devil-may-care “Easy come, easy go” was clubbed over the head by a miserly “quit while you’re ahead”.  So I did.

Another lesson learned, at least temporarily.

Additional Photos

Milen Lazarov

PM Eric Matteson writing emergency code!

Paul Lange not giving anyone else a turn.

Mike Lambert … Bartender?!?

Donovan and Ron

Sean and the 1,000 yard stare.

Dan, Rolf, Sean, Kathy and Brett.

Brian Terwilliger Charming Security.

Because it needed more color.

PMDG T-6 … Sort of!

When one prop just isn’t enough.

Rounding the corner.

I will not, under any circumstances, mess with Texas. Don’t worry, Mr. President.

Snowbird, far from home.

I don’t know, I’m still pretty set on the Prius.

Sean, Rolf, and Aces Design Lead Pat Cook feigning interest.

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1 Response to Flying Down to Reno

  1. Dan says:

    There are many things I could/should probably say, but i think i\’ll stick with 2 simple comments.  I appreciate you posting the attractive picture of me, and I think that picture of you with "Hawk Younkins" is remeniscent of one of the most interesting nights i\’ve ever had, in addition to being a lovely photo as well.  Glad to see you\’re back to blogging.

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