The King and His Wings

21 April 2023 By Vernon Creek in Access and Learning

Ever wondered what it might be like to be a King and to know how to fly in the Royal Air Force? Both our current King Charles III and his son, the Prince of Wales (the next in line to the throne) are fully qualified RAF pilots. Here at the RAF Museum London, you can see three of the aircraft they have flown!

Jet Provosts were designed to enable junior pilots who had already qualified on propeller driven aeroplanes, to get their first experiences flying jet powered aeroplanes. Trainee pilots would then go on to fly something more powerful. In 1971 when our red and white Jet Provost T5A XW323 /9166M was new, it was based at the airfield of the officer training college at RAF Cranwell, Lincolnshire. It was selected for use for the pilot training of Flt Lt The Prince of Wales – now HM The King. His period of training was codenamed ‘Exercise Golden Eagle’. Two Jet Provosts were held at readiness for use by the Prince during his five-month course. He flew just over 92 hours in these, 23 ½ of them solo. Prince Charles received his pilot badge or ‘wings’ from the Chief of the Air Staff, on 20 August 1971 at his passing out parade, after completing over 140 hours of flight training. You can see our Jet Provost in Hangars 3 and 4.

Image of a BAC Jet Provost T5A in a Hangar at the RAF Museum

Prince William – today’s Prince of Wales – trained at RAF Shawbury before joining his operational Search and Rescue Force squadron as a pilot in 2010. Flt Lt Wales, as he was known, was based at RAF Valley on the island of Anglesey. He eventually served as a captain (senior pilot and mission leader).  During his three years of Search and Rescue duties he undertook 156 rescue operations, resulting in 149 people being rescued and completed over 1,300 flying hours. One of the big yellow Sea King HAR3 helicopters that he flew is in Hangar 1 at the Museum. Of the four crew, Prince William was the captain and working for him were his co-pilot, the radar operator and the winchman. In addition the helicopter could carry a further 18 passengers seated in the rear cabin or some stretchers – a lot of lives could be saved.

Sea King helicopter at the RAF Museum London

Our plush red and blue Westland Wessex HCC4 XV 732 helicopter is not in any way the ordinary type – which normally appeared in a drab camouflage green. It was manufactured in 1969 and as a brand-new example was selected to join the then Queen’s Flight of the RAF. This meant its destiny was to fly members of the Royal Family – or to be flown by members of the same Family! Also, to fly kings, queens, princes and princesses, presidents and prime ministers of this country and many others. One of its first duties was to fly HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother to the investiture ceremony of her grandson, the Prince of Wales (today’s HM King Charles), at Caernarvon Castle in North Wales. Of all the Royal Family, she really liked flying in this helicopter as it was very handy to get to engagements and events speedily. A special footstool was made for her, so that she could rest her legs whilst flying – still inside the luxury carpeted cabin today. With its VIP interior, carpets, seats, soundproofing, steps, XV 732 is properly comfortable! There is even a storage cabinet for royal picnics and racks for plates and cups. Our Wessex – which you can see in Hangars 3 and 4 – has carried most members of the Royal Family and has been flown by HRH Prince Phillip and also by today’s HM King Charles.

A Wessex helicopter at the RAF Museum London

About the Author

Vernon Creek

Vernon Creek is an Access and Learning Officer at the RAF Museum London. He manages the Handling Collection for both internal and external loans, assists with a range of enquiries around the Museum and is the History lead for the team.