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Wings for the Prince

Retired RAF flying instructors remember the privilege of training His Royal Highness King Charles III on achieving his wings.

“The real reward of being a military flying instructor is not just teaching a student who achieves a pass of above average standard but teaching a student that proves they have the ability to be a first class operational pilot.” These were the words of Air Chief Marshal (ret'd) Sir Richard Johns who reflected on a particular pilot who received his wings from then Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Denis Spotswood on 20 August 1971.

The pilot in question was no other than His Royal Highness King Charles III. His Majesty The King spent some time in the Royal Air Force before embarking on a career in the Royal Navy and as we celebrate his Coronation, we take a look back at his formative time in the care of RAF personnel and speak to those that knew him from that time.

“He was master of his own destiny. Flying solo gave him, and indeed all the other Royals who have flown a great satisfaction and is probably why they love flying.”

The Royal Family have always been very interested in flying and keen to fly so it was no surprise that the then Prince of Wales followed in the footsteps of his father, the late Prince Philip, as well as Royals before him.

Whilst studying at Cambridge University, Prince Charles began flying lessons led by then Squadron Leader Philip Pinney who spent two and a half years training him. The Royal Chipmunk has a rotating beacon on top, the only one in the world. It was the same aircraft that had been used to teach Prince Philip. After passing his private pilot’s licence flying test and qualifying for the award of the preliminary flying badge on the Chipmunk aircraft, he moved on to the Basset CC1 clocking a further 90 hours flying before he was to transfer over to the full jet training course.

“We met in the air, on the ground, at University and often off-duty fishing or climbing mountains. It was a wonderful experience, he was a wonderful man…I even attended his 21st birthday party.”

Fondly looking back on his time training Prince Charles, Group Captain (ret'd) Philip Pinney said; “It was a very relaxed relationship where he’d call up asking to be taken out in the aircraft on weekends and when training was deployed to Aberystwyth one summer he’d join us in the mess, fly as much as he could and we even went hiking and fishing together in our down time. It was a wonderful experience.”

One ordinary day in April 1970, the then Squadron Leader Richard Johns was summoned to the office of Air Vice-Marshal Derek Hodgkinson, then acting AOC-in-C Flying Training Command. Being a junior Squadron Leader at the time he arrived expecting to be reprimanded for something he didn’t know he had done but was pleasantly surprised to be presented with the request asking if he’d like to become the Prince of Wales’ flying instructor. Describing this moment as a ‘bolt from the blue,’ it was a day that changed his career forever.

With a grand exercise name to report to, Exercise Golden Eagle, and agreeing to the request made by Air Vice-Marshal Derek Hodgkinson, Sir Richard went about preparing for Prince Charles’ arrival expected the following year.

Sir Richard looks back at his time being asked to undertake this once-in-a-lifetime tasking and the months leading up to Prince Charles’ arrival saying: “I don’t remember much from this time, just utter surprise! After it had sunk in I became aware, not only of the challenge that this job presented, but also the huge responsibility. The safety of Prince Charles became my utmost priority, and I began my own in-depth training regime to ensure I had all the necessary skills and competencies to lead the Prince in his own training.”

Despite already being comfortable in the Chipmunk aircraft, full jet training meant going back to basics for the then Prince, who came into the care of Sir Richard upon arrival at RAF Cranwell on 8 March 1971 as a No.1 Graduate Entry (GE) with the rank of Flight Lieutenant.

Prince Charles began his course straight away, with two weeks of ground school training that covered technical subjects concerning the Jet Provost Mk 5, combat survival, emergency drills and cockpit procedures. On completion, Prince Charles, and his three other No.1 GE students, went on to undertake lectures in airmanship, aerodynamics, meteorology, aviation medicine and navigation.

“He was not going to fail, it was as simple as that.”

Finally, Prince Charles was able to start his jet flying on 19 March 1971 and Sir Richard remembers the time as being quite an easy job as the Prince was so competent. Recalling one particular sortie Sir Richard said: “One lesson we learnt formation flying which is a demanding activity but one Prince Charles settled into comfortably quite quickly. However, there was one aspect he just couldn’t get to grips with, which I thought was down to him not relaxing. I told him to relax and in response he burst into song!”

Reflecting on being Prince Charles’ instructor Sir Richard said: “I had to put my complete faith in the pilots I was training. Prince Charles had a natural ability and picked things up very quickly. He was an easy student to teach, and I was very impressed by not just his focus and concentration but his impeccable determination to succeed. He was not going to fail, it was as simple as that.”

Whilst his time in the RAF was short the training he received from Sir Richard and Philip no doubt prepared him for his military career in the Royal Navy and gave him his first military flying experience before he later qualified as a helicopter pilot, flying Wessex helicopters with 845 Naval Air Squadron from the Commando aircraft carrier HMS Hermes.

“It's an immense pride. When I see the King wearing uniform with RAF wings on I think I’ve played a part in that and I feel very honoured that I had the chance to do that.”

HM The King has remained close to the armed forces since his retirement and over the years has visited numerous RAF stations on Royal business. The Service is proud to have played a part in his military career and were honoured that Queen Elizabeth II awarded him the highest rank as Marshal of the Royal Air Force in 2012.

“There’s no other person in the Commonwealth who has all the qualities that he has got. He has the competencies to be the future King”

Sharing their thoughts on the upcoming coronation Philip said “I’m delighted he’s going to be celebrating his coronation as he must be as capable and competent as any other person can possibly be to carry this great responsibility”. Whilst Sir Richard closed by saying; “with his endurable range of talents and interest I am entirely confident that they will be deployed to the best interests of our country, and I wish him well throughout.”