Air transport of the Royal Family and government of the United Kingdom

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Air transport for the Royal Family and Her Majesty's Government is provided, depending on circumstances and availability, by a variety of military and civilian operators. These currently include The Queen's Helicopter Flight (part of the Royal Household), No. 32 (The Royal) Squadron of the Royal Air Force (RAF), chartered civil aircraft, but most often by scheduled commercial flights normally flying with British Airways.


A twin engined monoplane G-AEXX, in a distinctive livery of red and blue, with silver wings
Contemporary Dinky Toy model of the Airspeed Envoy

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 13 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; however this was replaced in May 1937 by an Airspeed AS.6J Envoy III.

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.[2] The King's Flight was reformed on 1 May 1946 at RAF Benson with a single aircraft, a de Havilland Dominie.

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 (helicopter), Douglas Dakota (for Royal Visit to Nepal 1960), de Havilland Canada Chipmunk, Beagle Basset and Hawker Siddeley Andover aircraft.

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.[3] That occasion was also the first visit by a Concorde aircraft to Barbados.[4] 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.[5][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.

An AgustaWestland AW-109E Power Elite of No. 32 (Royal) Squadron, at RIAT 2012

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 HM The Queen and HRH 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 fiscal 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]

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip disembark from Concorde on their state visit to USA in 1991

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 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.[4][12]

Present arrangements[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.

The RAF is unusual compared to other air transports of heads of state and government in that they do not have any dedicated VIP transport aircraft capable of crossing the Atlantic ocean or flying to Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa. With the RAF VC10 fleet now retired, the Prime Minister generally uses chartered jets for long range travel (typically British Airways Boeing 777s).

In November 2015 it was announced that an RAF A330 will be refitted to carry government ministers or members of the Royal Family for official visits. The refit would cost £10m but would save about £775,000 annually compared to the current practice of chartering flights.[13]

Royal Family[edit]

The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall utilising an RAAF 737 BBJ on a visit to Australia.

The responsibility for Royal Family travel was transferred to the Royal Household on 1 April 1997. Previously 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 from Parliament through the Department for Transport. Later that year the Royal Yacht Britannia was retired and not replaced, and the Royal Household was given authorisation to acquire a helicopter for dedicated private use.

The Royal Helicopter and the Royal Train are insufficient to meet all the travel requirements of the Royal Household, even for domestic travel. The Queen does not travels on scheduled flights, but the rest of the family does whenever feasible. Royalty are now 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 Royal S-76C++ Helicopter in Holyrood Park, Edinburgh

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[14] in honour of G-AEXX, the Airspeed Envoy that the Queen's uncle, the Prince of Wales first flew in the King's Flight.[15] 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.[16] This helicopter, registration G-XXEB,[17] is capable of a maximum speed of 178 mph and a ferry range of 400 miles (640 km) with a 30-minute reserve.

Cost of royal travel[edit]

The United Kingdom is the only G20 member without a dedicated jet for the head of state and the head of government. 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 fiscal 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 fiscal 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 £2,400,000 which includes the cost of the staff of TQHF.

Fixed-wing aircraft[edit]

RAF jets (4 hours large aircraft, 1 hours small aircraft in 2011): For the year ending 31 March 2011 the Royal Family used one of the Royal Air Force BAe 146 airliners (1 trip) or a BAe 125 small business jet (1 trips) at a cost of £22,000.[8]

Large fixed-wing charter aircraft (45 hours in 2011): In FY2011 only three charters were over £100K.

  • 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 Gloucester 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 (351 hours in 2011) and Scheduled flights: The vastly reduced use of 32 Squadron in FY2011 has given rise to the a large increase in small fixed-wing charter during the year.

Many of Prince Andrew's trips for the UKTI have involved very long distance travel (usually intercontinental) on scheduled flights for him and his team from the UK, after which jets are chartered to go to multiple local destinations.

Scheduled flights alone: 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 fly on scheduled aircraft. The Prince of Wales has flown on scheduled aircraft in the past, but he did not in fiscal 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. 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 to Japan and Indonesia in Oct-Nov 2008 (£665,674).

Since chartering a large jet to tour another continent is not something undertaken by most citizens, the most biting criticism is often reserved for trips that resemble those taken by a normal person. For instance, 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. The purpose of the trip is cited as residence to residence.[18] In comparison, the following weekend, Charles's younger brother and wife, The Earl and Countess of Wessex, were charged £14,916 for a jet to attend the 19 June 2010 wedding of Victoria, Crown Princess of Sweden.

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 319 that seats 29 people for a tour in 2009 to raise environmental awareness was criticised.[citation needed]

Fleet replacement[edit]

Proposals to provide a new dedicated VIP transport aircraft, for governmental or royal use, were first mooted in 1998.[19] However, in March 2009 the latest of these proposals for a £7m 12-seater private jet plans were halted by recession. The government decided that the Queen and Royal Family will continue to fly on No. 32 Squadron aircraft for the next year to defer the cost of a new aircraft during the economic slowdown.[20]

The replacement helicopter for The Queen's Helicopter Flight was delivered in November 2009.

Proposed "Air Force One"[edit]

Voyager - proposed plane for conversion as UK Air Force One

There have been frequent proposals by the British government for the commissioning of a UK version of "Air Force One" to be used by members of the royal family and government. The first main proposal was made by Tony Blair who considered commissioning two permanent planes for the Queen and the Prime Minister.[21] However following serious criticism by the government, mainly for financial reasons, the plan was later scrapped by Gordon Brown when he became Prime Minister.[22] The Ministry of Defence has often supported the country's need for an Air Force One following concerns for the Prime Minister's safety when abroad and for government to have a safe place to operate from during times of crisis. The Intelligence and Security Committee has also put forward its support, stating there is usually no communication for hours between the Prime Minister and British intelligence chiefs due to lack of communications systems.[23] The government currently uses chartered flights with British Airways.

Due to financial criticism, more recent informal proposals have been made by Airbus, who have drawn up plans for the conversion of the Airbus A330 MRTT, known as Voyager and used by the Royal Air Force for fighter jet refueling and to carry troops, to be converted into a carrier plane for the royal family and government when not in operational use.[24] The United Kingdom is the only G20 country without a special ministerial aircraft.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Air International René Francillon Nov. 1999 "Fit for a King: Wings for Sovereigns, Presidents and Prime Ministers" pp. 289-290
  2. ^ History of No. 161 Squadron.
  3. ^ Burleigh, Craig (2008). "Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee in Barbados ends with her first flight on Concorde on a record setting flight back to London Heathrow.". Retrieved 16 January 2010. 
  4. ^ a b Queen Elizabeth II (January 2010). "Queen and Barbados: Royal visits". Retrieved 16 January 2010. 
  5. ^ Concorde History Timeline
  6. ^ Barbados Concorde Experience, museum
  7. ^ a b "Aircraft of the RAF: BAe 146". 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Royal Travel Grant-in-Aid Reports
  9. ^ National Audit Office Royal travel by air and rail
  10. ^ Owen, Glen (10 July 2011). "'Meddling' Prince Charles had cost of the Royal Flight slashed after protest to George Osborne". Daily Mail (London). 
  11. ^ "Queen switched to charter flights after Government ordered RAF to increase charges eightfold". Daily Mail (London). 5 July 2011. 
  12. ^ Burleigh, Craig (2008). "Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee in Barbados ends with her first flight on Concorde on a record setting flight back to London Heathrow.". Retrieved 16 January 2010. 
  13. ^ "PM to get own plane for official trips – News – BBC". 
  14. ^ G-INFO Record for G-XXEA
  15. ^ "Air Travel". 
  16. ^ Sikorsky Aircraft Delivers New VIP S-76C++ Helicopter to U.K. Royal Household
  17. ^ G-INFO Record for G-XXEB
  18. ^ "Republic: luxury personal travel at taxpayers' expense highlights need to halt royal funding plans". 
  19. ^ BBC News 3 August 1998 "Blair flies into trouble"
  20. ^ Jamieson, Alastair (28 March 2009). "Queen has £7m private jet plans halted by recession". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 30 March 2010. 
  21. ^ "PM to get two 'Blair Force Ones'". BBC News. 20 June 2006. 
  22. ^ Tapsfield, James (26 March 2008). "Brown scraps 'Blair Force One' plan". The Independent (London). 
  23. ^ "'Blair Force One' plans get boost". BBC News. 11 June 2003. 
  24. ^ Ruddick, Graham (22 April 2012). "Austerity Force One for Britain". The Daily Telegraph (London).