Air transport of the British royal family and government

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The Royal Household S-76C++ helicopter

Air transport for the British Royal Family and the Government of the United Kingdom is provided, depending on circumstances and availability, by a variety of military and civilian operators. This includes the RAF VIP Voyager of the Royal Air Force (No. 32 (The Royal) Squadron) and The Queen's Helicopter Flight which forms part of the Royal Household. In past years chartered civil aircraft and scheduled commercial flights, mainly with British Airways, the flag carrier airline of the United Kingdom, have been utilised.


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

The first aircraft ordered specifically for transportation of the Royal Family, two Westland Wapitis, were delivered to No. 24 Squadron at RAF Northolt in April 1928. Between 1929 and 1935 the Prince of Wales purchased thirteen aircraft. 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.

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 Neville Shute 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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4]

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 Sir Grantley Adams International Airport, Barbados, to London Heathrow, England. That occasion was also the first visit by a Concorde aircraft to Barbados.[5] The 'Alpha Echo' aircraft in which The Queen had travelled, was the last Concorde to fly supersonic to Barbados on 17 November 2003; a delivery flight to the Barbados Concorde Experience museum where it remains on display.[6]

In 1983, the RAF leased two BAe 146 aircraft to assess their suitability as replacements for The Queen's Flight's Andovers.[7] 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.[7]

These aircraft have a large passenger space compared to a mid-size business jet. The cabin space is over 700 square feet (65 m2) and is almost as large as the smallest Boeing Business Jet which has 809 square feet (75.2 m2). Most mid-size business jets have less than 200 square feet (19 m2) of cabin space. The 6'6" ceiling allows people to comfortably stand, and because of the aircraft's size and defensive equipment, this is the aircraft that is the first choice for domestic or European trips.[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. This 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.

The squadron provides air travel for members of the Royal Family and senior politicians. 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 BAe125 and £1,846 for a BAe 146, to £9,997 and £13,086 respectively.[8] No journeys were undertaken under these arrangements. After alleged pressure from the Prince of Wales, on 1 December 2010, the rates were reduced (BAe 125: £4,000 and BAe 146: £5,000 per flying hour).[10]

Under these higher prices, the Royal Family only flew twice on military jets in financial year 2010-2011.[8] 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).[11]

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.

Present arrangements[edit]

Royal Air Force VIP Voyager[edit]

In November 2015, it was announced the government would fit VIP seating to a Royal Air Force Airbus Voyager A332 aircraft for use for carrying the prime minister, government officials and members of the Royal Family.[12] The Voyager refit and operation will cost £10 million which is believed will save £775,000 a year on the cost of Downing Street flights as charter flights will no longer be necessary. The new arrangement is expected to cost around £2,000 per flying hour as opposed to £6,700 for long-haul charter. The refit will include a secure satellite communications system, missile detection and 158 passenger seats. The aircraft will retain the Royal Air Force livery and continue its primary duties refuelling when not in use by the government.[13]

Proposals to provide a new dedicated VIP transport aircraft, for governmental or royal use, were first mooted in 1998.[14] However, in March 2009 the latest of these proposals for a £7 million 12-seater private jet plans were halted by recession. The government decided that the Queen and Royal Family would continue to fly on No. 32 Squadron aircraft for the next year to defer the cost of a new aircraft during the economic slowdown.[15]

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.[16]


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.

On Friday 8 July 2016, a newly converted RAF Voyager A330, (registry ZZ336) was first used by the UK to transport government ministers from London Heathrow airport to the 2016 NATO conference in Warsaw, Poland. This new transport aircraft was reconfigured to have 158 seats but still retain its primary mission as an aerial tanker. The aircraft is also intended for use by The Queen and members of the Royal Family for official overseas visits. The introduction of this new aircraft will eliminate the need for the Government to charter flights.[17]

In May 2018, however, the then Foreign Secretary, The Rt Hon. Boris Johnson, criticised these arrangements, protesting that the RAF Voyager 'never seems to be available'. He also remarked that the Voyager'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'.[18]

Royal Family[edit]

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 Queen's Helicopter Flight (TQHF)[edit]

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[19] in honour of G-AEXX, the Airspeed Envoy that the Queen's uncle, the Prince of Wales first flew in the King's Flight.[20] 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 only fitted with six seats for more comfort.

On 4 November 2009, Sikorsky announced the delivery of a new S-76C++ helicopter to TQHF.[21] This helicopter, registration G-XXEB,[22] is capable of a maximum speed of 178 mph and a ferry range of 400 miles (640 km) with a 30-minute fuel reserve.

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 a June financial report detailing the expenses for the Royal Travel Grant-in-Aid.[8] The royal household assumed responsibility for royal travel in April 1997.

Cost of royal air travel (in millions; year ends 31 March)
2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003
Fixed-wing (civil charter + scheduled flights) £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) £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
£2.4 £2.4 £2.1 £2.3 £2.2 £2.2 £2.2 £2.1 £2.3 £2.1


For the last financial year reported (FY2011 is from 1 April 2010 through 31 March 2011) the Queen's helicopter flew for a total of 385 hours.[8] The Queen's helicopter was supplemented with private helicopter charter 58 times domestically. Combined helicopter travel costs were £2.4 million which includes the cost of the staff of TQHF.

Fixed-wing aircraft[edit]

In FY2011, the Royal Family used one of the Royal Air Force BAe 146 airliners (one trip) or a BAe 125 small business jet (one trip) at a cost of £22,000.[8]

In the financial year 2011 only three charter flights on large fixed-wing aircraft were over £100,000:

  • A £356,253 charter from London to Abu Dhabi to Muscat and back to London. The trip was for Her Majesty for a state visit in November 2010.
  • A £298,089 charter for the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall from Britain to Delhi to Chandigarh to Jodhpur and back to Britain was taken in October 2010.
  • A £121,810 charter for The Duke of York from Farnborough to Rome to Milan to Ashkabad to Almaty to Astana to Atyrau to Kiev and back to Farnborough taken in April 2010.

Small fixed-wing charter aircraft were chartered for a total of 351 hours in 2011. The vastly reduced use of 32 Squadron in FY2011 gave rise to the a large increase in small fixed-wing charter flights during the year. Many of Prince Andrew's trips for UK Trade & Investment involved very long-distance travel (usually intercontinental) on scheduled flights for him and his team from the UK, after which jets were chartered to go to multiple local destinations.

Several royal trips taken by the Duke of York, Duke of Kent, Duke of Gloucester, Duke of Cambridge and the Princess Royal involve only seats on scheduled aircraft with no charters. Her Majesty does not travel on scheduled flights. The Prince of Wales has flown on scheduled aircraft in the past, but he did not in financial year 2011.

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.[23] 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.[24]

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.[25] The purpose of the trip is cited as residence to residence.[26]

Prince Charles's determination to bring environmental issues to the forefront of public policymaking has been regularly praised but has also left him open to accusations of hypocrisy. His choice of leasing an Airbus A319 that seats 29 people for a tour in 2009 to raise environmental awareness was criticised for its carbon footprint.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ René Francillon (November 1999). "Fit for a King: Wings for Sovereigns, Presidents and Prime Ministers". Air International: 289–290.
  2. ^ Norway, Neville Shute (1954). Slide Rule. London: William Heinemann. p. 242.
  3. ^ "History of No. 161 Squadron". Archived from the original on 11 July 2006. Retrieved 12 July 2006.
  4. ^ Thetford 'Aircraft of the Royal Air Force', 8th Ed 1988, p.649
  5. ^ The Royal Household. "The Queen and Barbados: Royal visits". The Official Website of the British Monarchy. Retrieved 16 January 2010.
  6. ^ "Barbados Concorde Experience". Barbados Concorde Experience. Archived from the original on 9 February 2011. Retrieved 14 September 2011.
  7. ^ a b "Aircraft of the RAF: BAe 146". Archived from the original on 30 April 2009. Retrieved 28 April 2009.
  8. ^ a b c d e f The Royal Household. "Royal travel grant-in-aid reports". The Official Website of the British Monarchy.
  9. ^ National Audit Office (22 June 2001). "Royal travel by air and rail" (PDF). The Stationery Office: 2. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  10. ^ Glen Owen (10 July 2011). "'Meddling' Prince Charles had cost of the Royal Flight slashed after protest to George Osborne". MailOnline.
  11. ^ "Queen switched to charter flights after Government ordered RAF to increase charges eightfold". MailOnline. 5 July 2011.
  12. ^ "David Cameron and the government are getting a state-of-the-art 'Air Force One' for £10m". The Huffington Post. 19 November 2015.
  13. ^ "The British attitude towards a prime ministerial jet". BBC News. 19 November 2015.
  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. Retrieved 30 March 2010.
  16. ^ National Security Strategy Review 2015. RAF. p. 32.
  17. ^
  18. ^ Boris Johnson says he 'probably needs' a private plane
  19. ^ "G-INFO Record for G-XXEA". CAA.
  20. ^ The Royal Household. "Air travel". The Official Website of the British Monarchy.
  21. ^ "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.
  22. ^ "G-INFO Record for G-XXEB". CAA.
  23. ^ Murphy, Victoria. "Royal family rack up £5m travel bill as Sovereign grant funding set to soar to nearly £43m". Retrieved 5 November 2016.
  24. ^ "The Grant-in-aid for Royal Travel by Air and Rail" (PDF). Retrieved 5 November 2016.
  25. ^ Brown, Jonathan. "A travel bill fit for a Queen: Middle East flights cost £356,000". The Independent. Retrieved 5 November 2016.
  26. ^ "Luxury personal travel at taxpayers' expense highlights need to halt royal funding plans". Republic.
  27. ^ Schnayerson, Michael. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Throne". Vanity Fair. Retrieved 5 November 2016.

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