Air transport of the British royal family and government

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Air transport of the British royal family and government is provided, depending on the circumstances and availability, by a variety of military and civilian operators. This includes an Airbus Voyager of the Royal Air Force, No. 10 Squadron and the Queen's Helicopter Flight, which forms part of the royal household. Civil aircraft and scheduled commercial flights are also utilised.


The last surviving Airspeed Envoy, operated by Private Charter Ltd at Manchester (Ringway) Airport in 1948

Royal Family[edit]

The first aircraft ordered specifically for transport of the royal family, two Westland Wapitis, were delivered to No. 24 Squadron at RAF Northolt in April 1928. Although the RAF maintained at least one of these aircraft for a time the Prince of Wales eventually became solely responsible for the aircraft. When the Prince ascended to the throne in 1936 as Edward VIII, The King's Flight was formed as the world's first head of state aircraft unit.[1] In contrast the first flight of a sitting U.S. president was in January 1943. This unit initially used the King's own de Havilland DH.89 Dragon Rapide. The flight was commanded by the prince's personal pilot, Edward "Mouse" Fielden who continued to lead the flight before and after the war.[2][3]

In May 1937 an AS.6J Envoy III replaced the Rapide. The King's Flight Envoy had seats for four passengers plus a pilot, wireless operator and steward. When Nevil Shute Norway of Airspeed queried the need for a steward on flights of up to two or three hours, he was told by the captain of the flight, Wing Commander Fielden "of the fatigue that royal personages must endure ... of radiant people who had opened a Town Hall and shaken a thousand hands ... collapsing in a coma of fatigue directly the door was shut, grey faced and utterly exhausted'".[4]

The outbreak of World War II in 1939 led to the replacement of the Envoy III with an armed Lockheed Hudson. A de Havilland Flamingo was added to The King's Flight in September 1940.

In 1942, The King's Flight was disbanded and its responsibilities transferred to No. 161 Squadron. No. 161 Squadron was an operational military squadron, involved in the dropping of supplies and agents over occupied Europe throughout the War.[5] The King's Flight was reformed on 1 May 1946 at RAF Benson with a single aircraft, a de Havilland Dominie and, soon after, with four Vickers Viking C.2.[6]

As The Queen's Flight from 1952, the unit operated a variety of aircraft for the transportation and pilot training of members of the royal family, including Vickers Viking, Avro York, de Havilland Heron and Devon, Westland Whirlwind, Westland Wessex HCC.4, Douglas Dakota (for the Royal Visit to Nepal in 1960), de Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunk, Beagle Basset and Hawker Siddeley Andover aircraft.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip disembark from a British Airways Concorde at Bergstrom Air Force Base near Austin, Texas, on their state visit to USA in 1991

On 2 November 1977, Queen Elizabeth II travelled for the first time aboard Concorde (aircraft G-BOAE). Her Majesty then flew from the Grantley Adams International Airport, Barbados, to London Heathrow, England. That occasion was also the first visit by a Concorde aircraft to Barbados.[7]

In 1983, the RAF leased two BAe 146 aircraft to assess their suitability as replacements for The Queen's Flight's Andovers.[8] The trial was a success and three VIP-configured BAe 146-100s entered service with The Queen's Flight (as BAe 146 CC.2s) from 1986 as the flight's first jet aircraft. In 2002 one of these BAe 146s was sold as surplus. These jets, also known as the BAe 146 Statesman, have a specially designed Royal Suite cabin. Although the civilian BAe 146-100 has 70-94 seats, the two BAe 146 CC.2 are configured for 19 or 26 passengers in comfort.[8]

The Royal Squadron[edit]

CC2 aircraft, delivered to The Queen's Flight in 1986 and now part of 32 (The Royal) Squadron

On 1 April 1995, The Queen's Flight was merged into No. 32 Squadron RAF to become No. 32 (The Royal) Squadron. Its BAe 146s and two Westland Wessex HCC.4 helicopters moved from Benson to 32 Squadron's base at RAF Northolt.

The responsibility for royal family travel was transferred to the royal household on 1 April 1997. Before then, it was shared by the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Transport and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The funding comes in the form of a royal travel grant-in-aid provided by the Department for Transport. Later in 1997, the Royal Yacht Britannia was retired and not replaced, and the Royal Household was given authorisation to acquire a helicopter for its private use.

The Royal Helicopter and the Royal Train are insufficient to meet all the travel requirements of the royal family, even for domestic travel. The Queen does not travel on scheduled flights, but the rest of the family does whenever possible. Members of the family are normally flown on private charters, either large fixed-wing aircraft, small fixed-wing aircraft, or helicopters, depending on the distance and the size of the official party.

The squadron merger ended the RAF's provision of dedicated VIP transport aircraft; the aircraft of 32 Squadron are only available to VIP passengers if not needed for military operations. This was declared officially in 1999, with the Ministry of Defence stating "the principal purpose of 32 Squadron [is] to provide communications and logistical support to military operations; the Squadron's capacity should be based on military needs only; and any royal or other non-military use of... spare capacity is secondary to its military purpose."[9] The effect of this declaration was to radically reduce the charge per hour to the royal travel grant-in-aid for flying in an RAF jet, because now only the variable costs of the flight were expensed to the royal travel budget.

BAe 146[edit]

Operated for The Queen's Flight since 1986 two of these aircraft remained available to No. 32 Squadron as short-haul VIP configured airliners.[10]

It was also announced in the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 that the current Command Support Air Transport fleet aircraft would be replaced as they reached the end of their life to increase their operational utility and ensure continued effective transport for the Royal Family and senior ministers.[11]

In February 2022 Defence Equipment and Support announced that the four BAe 146 aircraft will be replaced by two Dassault Falcon 900LX aircraft.[12]

Other aircraft[edit]

Other RAF aircraft have transported members of the Royal family and ministers, particularly for long range trips for which The Queen's Flight and Royal Squadron planes were unsuitable. This most often involved Vickers VC10 C.1s, XR807 and XV106, of the now disbanded No. 10 Squadron - later subsumed by No. 101 Squadron based at RAF Brize Norton.

Occasionally, the supersonic passenger aircraft, Concorde, was used to transport the Prime Minister and Royal Family, particularly to international conferences abroad. The first supersonic flight that Queen Elizabeth II experienced was on 2 November 1977 at the end of her Silver Jubilee.

Current aircraft[edit]

Most air travel by cabinet and junior ministers is on scheduled commercial flights. Travel on 32 Squadron aircraft is recommended where it is more cost-effective than using commercial air transport, or where security considerations dictate that special flights should be used. In 2016, the VIP RAF Voyager became the first dedicated VIP transport plane for government ministers and the Royal Family, after such plans had been proposed and shelved repeatedly since the 1990s.

The majority of non-scheduled travel for the Royal Family is provided by private charter, with Luxaviation UK being the exclusive supplier of private charters to the Royal Family since April 2009.[13]

Principal VIP aircraft[edit]

Airbus Voyager: The first dedicated aircraft for government ministers[edit]

Historically, only the Royal Family had dedicated aircraft; government ministers would fly on commercial flights, rented private jets, or occasionally RAF-operated flights.[citation needed] Proposals to provide a new dedicated VIP transport aircraft, for governmental or royal use, were first mooted in 1998.[14] However, in March 2009 a proposal for a £7 million 12-seater private jet plans were halted by recession.[15] In November 2015, it was announced the government would fit VIP seating to one of the nine[16] core fleet of RAF Airbus Voyager tanker/transport aircraft for the use of senior government officials and members of the Royal Family.[17] The Voyager refit cost £10 million and the government estimated the use of the aircraft would save £775,000 a year versus the cost of charter flights; The new arrangement was expected to cost around £2,000 per flying hour as opposed to £6,700 for long-haul charter.[18] The refit included a secure satellite communications system, missile detection, conference facilities, a changing room, 58 business class seats and 100 economy seats.[19][20]

The aircraft, the VIP RAF Voyager, retained the standard Royal Air Force livery and continued its primary military duties when not in use by the government.[21] Its first use as a VIP transport was on 8 July 2016, when it was used to take government ministers from London Heathrow airport to the 2016 NATO conference in Warsaw, Poland.

In 2018, the then foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, criticised the arrangements, protesting that the Voyager "never seems to be available". He also remarked that the aircraft's "drab grey colours undermined Britain's reputation when the country needed a powerful 'flagship'" and suggested that provision of a dedicated government aircraft would be desirable '"if there's a way of doing it that is not exorbitantly expensive".[22] In June 2020 the aircraft was repainted in colours of the Union Jack at a cost of £900,000.[23] [24]


AgustaWestland AW109SP: Royal Air Force[edit]

A Royal Air Force AgustaWestland AW109SP helicopter is occasionally used by ministers. Based at RAF Northolt, the helicopter performs the Command Support Air Transport role for senior military commanders and government ministers.[25] Depending on requirements, other RAF Helicopters may be used.

Dassault 900LX: Royal Air Force[edit]

In February 2022 Defence Equipment and Support announced that No. 32 Squadron (previously the Queen's Flight) will acquire two Dassault 900LX aircraft.[12] The first of these jets was delivered to RAF Northolt in May 2022. The RAF named the new aircraft type Envoy IV.[26]

Airbus A321-200NX(LR): Contracted aircraft[edit]

In November 2020 the Cabinet Office signed a contract with Corporate Travel Management (North) Ltd for the exclusive lease of a VIP configured aircraft for the use of the prime minister, other ministers and VVIPs. The contract was initially for two years (extendable to five years) with a potential total value of £75 million. The Cabinet Office had called for an aircraft with at least 30 and preferably 50 fully "lie-flat" seats, meeting areas, high-speed internet and secure weapons storage. The aircraft was required be available within 12 hours notice, be capable of carrying 30-50 passengers with 55kg of luggage each, at least from London to Washington (4,500nm) in all weathers and be available 24/7 while flying 50 hours per month. A "key" aspect was that the aircraft be painted in the same "Global Britain" colours as the VIP Voyager. The travel management company sub-contracted Titan Airways to provide the actual service and an Airbus A321-200 NEO registered G-XATW entered service in early 2021.[27] [28] In April 2022, the aircraft was repainted and leased from Titan to luxury travel operator TCS World Travel, and the government was provided by Titan Airways with an identical A321Neo, registered G-GBNI, which operates on the same basis.[29]

Royal Family[edit]

The Queen's Helicopter Flight (TQHF)[edit]

The Royal Household S-76C++ helicopter

The Queen's Helicopter Flight is part of The Queen's Private Secretary's department of the Royal Household, and is tasked by the Royal Travel Office at Buckingham Palace. From 1998 to 2009, it used a single maroon Sikorsky S-76C+ twin-engined helicopter, registered G-XXEA[30] in honour of G-AEXX, the Airspeed Envoy that the Queen's uncle, the Prince of Wales first flew in the King's Flight.[31] The helicopter, the first airframe dedicated solely to royal use, entered service on 21 December 1998. The S-76 is a commercial type widely used around the world, although the Queen's helicopter is fitted with only six seats for more comfort.

On 4 November 2009, Sikorsky announced the delivery of a new S-76C++ helicopter to TQHF.[32] This helicopter, registration G-XXEB,[33] is capable of a maximum speed of 178 mph and a ferry range of 400 miles (640 km) with a 30-minute fuel reserve. An AgustaWestland AW109S, registration G-XXEC, was operated on long-term lease to TQHF from 2014 to 2019,[34][35] and a second Sikorsky S-76C, G-XXED, is owned by TQHF, based at RAF Odiham.[36]

Fleet overview[edit]

Current fleet[edit]

Aircraft No. of Aircraft Introduced Retired Notes
Sikorsky S-76++ 2 2009 Operated by the Queen's Helicopter Flight for Royal Family use. Reg G-XXEB/G-XXED
AgustaWestland AW109SP 1 2016 Operated by the Royal Air Force for government ministers and senior military commanders. Reg GZ100
Airbus A330 MRTT 1 2016 Operated by the Royal Air Force; in "Global Britain" livery; first dedicated aircraft for Government ministers. Reg ZZ336
Airbus A321-200 NEO 1 2021 Leased from and operated by Titan Airways; in "Global Britain" livery. Reg G-GBNI
Dassault Falcon 900LX 2 2022 Operated by mixed Royal Air Force and Centreline Aviation crew; Reg G-ZAHS/G-ZABH

Historical fleet[edit]

Aircraft No. of Aircraft Introduced Retired Notes
Westland Wapitis 2 1928 1933
de Havilland Dragon Rapide 1 1936 1937
AS.6J Envoy III 1 1937 1939
Lockheed Hudson 1 1939 1942
de Havilland Flamingo 1 1940 1942
de Havilland Dominie 1 1946 Unknown
Vickers VC.1 Viking 4 1946 Unknown
de Havilland Heron 4 1955 1964
Hawker Siddeley Andovers 3 1964 1986 & 1990
British Aerospace 125 6 1982 2015
British Aerospace 146 3 1983 2022
Sikorsky S-76C+ 1 1998 2009
AgustaWestland AW109S 1 2014 2019

Cost of royal travel[edit]

The cost of royal travel (not including cars) is dominated by royal air travel, but also includes trains and yacht charter. All costs for the previous financial year ending 31 March are documented every year in an Appendix to the Sovereign Grant Report detailing the expenses.[37] The report does not show individual flights but overall trip budgets which may include pre-trip reconnaissance and other associated costs. Only trips in excess of £15,000 are detailed with trips under that amount being presented as a block total. In 2020 total travel costs of £2,825,633 for the year 2019-2020 were reported.

Cost of royal air travel (in £millions; year ends 31 March)
2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003
Fixed-wing (civil charter + scheduled flights) 2.2 1.4 2.2 2.2 1.6 2.6 2.2 1.9 1.6 1.2 0.8 0.4
Fixed-wing (Royal Air Force) Unknown Unknown 0.1 0.022 0.2 0.4 0.4 0.4 0.8 0.7 0.5 0.5
Helicopters (includes fixed costs of helicopter lease and staff of 9 of TQHF)
£1.6m fixed costs for TQHF
1.5 1.6 2.4 2.4 2.1 2.3 2.2 2.2 2.2 2.1 2.3 2.1

The 1999 declaration that the principal purpose of 32 Squadron was to provide communications and logistical support to military operations reduced the charge per hour to the royal travel grant-in-aid for flying in an RAF jet, because now only the variable costs of the flight were expensed to the royal travel budget.[citation needed]

However, on 1 April 2010, the hourly rate for journeys by the Queen and the Prince of Wales was increased dramatically from £1,138 for a BAe 125 and £1,846 for a BAe 146, to £9,997 and £13,086 respectively.[citation needed] No journeys were undertaken under these arrangements. On 1 December 2010, the rates were reduced (BAe 125: £4,000 and BAe 146: £5,000 per flying hour).[citation needed]

Under these higher prices, the royal family flew only twice on military jets in financial year 2010–2011.[citation needed] The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall flew the BAe 146 to Madrid and Lisbon in March 2011 (4 flight hours), and one non-itemised flight was taken on a BAe 125 (1 flight hour).[citation needed]

Criticism of royal air travel[edit]

Some criticism is aimed at expensive charters that are employed for visits of the Prince of Wales for trips that some believe are not critical to his role as British heir apparent.[38] Two of the most expensive charters were for visits to South America in March 2009 (£660,594) for a tour related to the Prince's ecological concerns, and a trip to Japan and Indonesia in October and November 2008 that cost £665,674.[39]

Between 12 and 16 June 2010, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall took a four-day short break to their home in Balmoral, Scotland. The charge to the government was £29,786 for a jet to fly them to Aberdeen and to return to London.[40]

Prince Charles's choice of chartering an Airbus A319 that seats 29 people for a tour in 2009 to raise environmental awareness was criticised for its carbon footprint.[41]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ René Francillon (November 1999). "Fit for a King: Wings for Sovereigns, Presidents and Prime Ministers". Air International: 289–290.
  2. ^ Babington Smith, Constance (23 September 2004). "Fielden, Sir Edward Hedley". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/31105. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. ^ "Obituary: Sir Edward Fielden, Flying the Royal Family". The Times. 9 November 1976. p. 9. Gale CS321355625.
  4. ^ Norway, Neville Shute (1954). Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer. London: William Heinemann. p. 242.
  5. ^ "History of No. 161 Squadron". Archived from the original on 11 July 2006. Retrieved 12 July 2006.
  6. ^ Thetford 'Aircraft of the Royal Air Force', 8th Ed 1988, p.649
  7. ^ The Royal Household. "The Queen and Barbados: Royal visits". The Official Website of the British Monarchy. Archived from the original on 20 April 2010. Retrieved 16 January 2010.
  8. ^ a b "Aircraft of the RAF: BAe 146". Archived from the original on 30 April 2009. Retrieved 28 April 2009.
  9. ^ National Audit Office (22 June 2001). "Royal travel by air and rail" (PDF). The Stationery Office. p. 2.
  10. ^ RAF, RAF. "BAE146 CCMK2 AND CMK3". RAF, MOD. Retrieved 21 October 2020.
  11. ^ National Security Strategy Review 2015. RAF. p. 32.
  12. ^ a b Pearson, Colin (8 February 2022). "New aircraft to enhance UK's international presence". Defence Equipment & Support. Retrieved 8 February 2022.
  13. ^ "Luxaviation UK - Online Brochure" (PDF).
  14. ^ "Blair flies into trouble". BBC News. 3 August 1998.
  15. ^ Alastair Jamieson (28 March 2009). "Queen has £7m private jet plans halted by recession". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 31 March 2009. Retrieved 30 March 2010.
  16. ^ A further five aircraft are contracted from AirTanker to be available when required
  17. ^ "David Cameron and the government are getting a state-of-the-art 'Air Force One' for £10m". The Huffington Post. 19 November 2015.
  18. ^ "David Cameron to take first flight on converted VIP RAF Voyager". BBC News. 5 July 2016. Retrieved 27 June 2020.
  19. ^ "Brochure" (PDF). AirTanker Services.
  20. ^ "SWS support the reconfigurations of two RAF tanker aircraft, one to an enhanced cabin and one to a commercial customer layout". SWS Aircraft Certifications.
  21. ^ "The British attitude towards a prime ministerial jet". BBC News. 19 November 2015.
  22. ^ Merrick, Rob (23 May 2018), "Boris Johnson criticised after calling for his own 'Brexit plane' to build up trade after UK leaves EU"", The Independent, archived from the original on 23 May 2018
  23. ^ Wilson, Sarah (18 June 2020). "Almost £1m of taxpayer money will be used to paint PM and Royal Family's RAF plane red, white and blue". Yorkshire Post. Retrieved 12 October 2020.
  24. ^ Goldie, Baroness (29 June 2020), Voyager Aircraft, Question for Ministry of Defence UIN HL5891, tabled on 18 June 2020, UK Parliament, The VIP Voyager aircraft's primary role remains Air-to-Air refuelling, and it remains available to meet a range of operational commitments. The aircraft is already used to fly senior Government Ministers and members of the Royal Family on official business. The new livery better reflects this prestigious task, however, if required, the aircraft can be returned quickly to a more traditional military livery, the costs for which are marginal and absorbed within the overall Voyager running costs.
  25. ^ "Royal Air Force". Royal Air Force. Retrieved 22 April 2022.
  26. ^ "Royal Air Force". Royal Air Force. Retrieved 7 June 2022.
  27. ^ Milmo, Cahal (4 August 2021). "Boris Johnson's £75m 'Brexit jet' provided by the same company running red list quarantine hotels". iNews. Archived from the original on 4 August 2021. Retrieved 4 August 2021.
  28. ^ Allison, George (2 August 2021). "Government could pay £75m for exclusive use of charter aircraft". UK Defence Journal. Archived from the original on 2 August 2021. Retrieved 4 August 2021.
  29. ^ "Airbus A321: Registration".
  30. ^ "G-INFO Record for G-XXEA". CAA.
  31. ^ The Royal Household. "Air travel". The Official Website of the British Monarchy.
  32. ^ "Sikorsky Aircraft Delivers New VIP S-76C++ Helicopter to U.K. Royal Household". Sikorsky. 4 November 2009. Archived from the original on 27 February 2012.
  33. ^ "G-INFO Record for G-XXEB". CAA.
  34. ^ "Search the G-INFO aircraft register | Civil Aviation Authority". Retrieved 12 February 2022.
  35. ^ "'Heir Force One' - Second Helicopter for the Royal Family". Aerossurance. 21 June 2014. Retrieved 6 June 2020.
  36. ^ "Aircraft Data G-XXED, 2007 Sikorsky S-76C C/N 760699". Retrieved 6 June 2020.
  37. ^ Royal (25 September 2020). "Travel Appendix to Sovereign Grant Report" (PDF). Royal UK. Retrieved 21 October 2020.
  38. ^ Murphy, Victoria. "Royal family rack up £5m travel bill as Sovereign grant funding set to soar to nearly £43m". Retrieved 5 November 2016.
  39. ^ "The Grant-in-aid for Royal Travel by Air and Rail" (PDF). Retrieved 5 November 2016.
  40. ^ Brown, Jonathan. "A travel bill fit for a Queen: Middle East flights cost £356,000". The Independent. Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 5 November 2016.
  41. ^ Schnayerson, Michael. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Throne". Vanity Fair. Retrieved 5 November 2016.

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