In pictures: royal flying

Keith Wilson, author of new pictorial history of royal flying, shares 12 remarkable images from the history of the King’s and Queen's Flight.

Edward, Prince of Wales, in the rear seat of a Bristol F.2B Fighter with Captain

Writing for History Extra, Keith Wilson introduces the history of the formation of the King’s Flight and shares 12 remarkable images which chart the royal family’s experiences with aviation since the birth of powered flight… 

When the King’s Flight was officially formed in 1936, passenger flying was very much in its infancy. Creating the Royal Flight was a most innovative action by King Edward VIII, although members of the royal family had enjoyed a passion for flying almost since the dawn of aviation.

The first confirmed flight by a member of the Royal Family was when Edward, the Prince of Wales – while on a visit to Villaverta on the Italian Front on 27 September 1918 – was invited to fly in the rear cockpit of a Bristol F.2B Fighter with Captain WG Barker of the RAF’s Number 139 Squadron. Interestingly, the prince remained standing in the rear cockpit throughout the short flight. 

Shortly after the end of the First World War, Prince Albert took a flying course at Croydon and was awarded his wings on 31 July 1919.

However, it was the Prince of Wales’s fervent interest in aviation that led him to purchase his very own de Havilland DH.60G Gipsy Moth in September 1929 and which ultimately led to the formation of the King’s Flight. Edward later took flying lessons in the aircraft and soon earned his own wings under the tutelage of one Squadron Leader Don.

Later, Edward added two further de Havilland aircraft to his own private collection before the flight was moved to RAF Hendon in late 1930. Shortly after the move, the aircraft were unofficially nicknamed ‘The Royal Flight’ by staff on the airfield, although it would be another six years before the King’s Flight would be officially formed.

Other Royal Air Force aircraft were allocated to ‘official’ royal duties and the sight of members of the Royal Family travelling by air became commonplace.

Over the years, the King’s and Queen’s Flight have operated an interesting variety of aircraft and helicopters, many of British design and manufacture. Royal visits have provided an excellent opportunity to promote British aviation.

One chapter in the book is dedicated the experiences of those who flew members of the royal family during the last years of the Queen’s Flight, which was finally disbanded on 31 March 1995 and merged with the RAF’s Number 32 (The Royals) Squadron. Flt Lt Steve Hunt was a pilot on the Duke of Edinburgh’s personal jet for a number of years and fondly recalls the experience of flying the royal party to locations all over the world.

Royal Flying – A Pictorial History covers far more than just the history of the King’s and Queen’s Flight, but also the flying careers of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry. 


Edward, Prince of Wales, in the rear seat of a Bristol F.2B Fighter with Captain WG Barker of No. 139 Squadron during his flight in 1918, while on a visit to the Italian Front. (Crown Copyright/Air Historical Branch image H1608)


HRH the Prince of Wales seen climbing aboard an unidentified but beautifully polished Westland Wapiti 1A. Two specially equipped Westland Wapiti 1As were ordered and delivered to the Communications Flight of No. 24 Squadron at Northolt in June 1928 for VVIP flying. (Queen’s Flight Archives image A041)


In 1934, the Duke and Duchess of York took their first flight together aboard a de Havilland DH.86 airliner. (Queen’s Flight Archive A021)


On 15 August 1940, the King visited the de Havilland factory at Hatfield to inspect the new DH.95 Flamingo. When at the site, he took a tour of the facilities accompanied by Geoffrey de Havilland. (BAE Systems)


An unofficial but rare colour image from the 1947 Royal tour to South Africa showing both the flight and ground crew of the King’s personal Viking, VL246. Left to right are: Flt Lt Reid (Radio Officer); Flt Lt Fowkes (Navigator); Flt Lt Lee (2nd Pilot); Wg Comm Tacon (CO and Pilot); Cpl Reynolds (Engines); Cpl Bulled (Airframe); and LAC Elliot (Steward). (Queen’s Flight Archive A846)


HRH Princess Margaret visited Hatfield during the National Air Races in 1951 and was photographed in the Comet 1 cockpit with Sir Geoffrey de Havilland and John Cunningham. Later, she requested an opportunity to fly in the new Comet. (Queen’s Flight Archive A085b)


In May 1952, Prince Philip decided to learn to fly, and felt the only way to learn properly was to be taught by the RAF. Two Chipmunks were allocated to the Flight for the duration of the training: WP961 and WP912. His instructor was Flt Lt Caryl Gordon. Philip made his first solo flight on 20 December 1952. (Crown Copyright/Air Historical Branch PRB-1-17949)


The Duke of Edinburgh in the cockpit of a Whirlwind helicopter during his visit to Christmas Island in April 1959. (Crown Copyright/Air Historical Branch image T-916)


The flight crew and Prince Charles after his flight in Vulcan B.2 XL392. Left to right are: Flying Officer I. Washington; Flt Lt G. Heath; Prince Charles; Flt Lt P. Perry; Flt Lt J. L. T. C. Le Brun (Captain); and Flt Lt P. Marsland. (Crown Copyright/Air Historical Branch image TN-1-6434-41)


HRH Prince William underwent basic flying tuition in the Grob Tutor T.1 with No. 1 Elementary Flying Training School at RAF Cranwell. He was photographed at the controls, in company with his instructor, on 14 January 2008. (Crown Copyright/Air Historical Branch image CCT-08-004-0020/Cpl Scott Robertson)


HM the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh paid a visit to RAF Valley on 1 April 2011, where their grandson, the Duke of Cambridge, was undergoing training with the Search and Rescue Flight (SARF). (Crown Copyright/Air Historical Branch image SAR-11-143-081/SAC Dek Traylor)


Like his older brother Prince William, Prince Harry took up flying, but with the British Army. Captain Wales served a 20-week deployment to Afghanistan during the winter of 2012/13, in the cockpit of a British Army Apache. Harry helped to launch the Invictus Games in 2014, and remains patron of its Foundation. He left the army in June 2015. (Crown Copyright/Air Historical Branch image 45158776) 

Royal Flying: A Pictorial History by Keith Wilson is published by Amberley Books and is on sale now. 

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