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

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

Air transport for the Royal Family and executive of the United Kingdom is provided by No. 32 Squadron of the Royal Air Force (RAF); chartered civilian aircraft; and occasionally scheduled commercial flights, provided by the company British Airways. No. 32 Squadron's executive transport role is secondary to its principal function of providing communications and logistical support for military operations. Given the security concerns of chartering commercial aircraft and the fact that the aircraft are increasingly unsuitable to an executive transport role, the government plans to acquire two dedicated executive transports for the use of the Royal Family and executive.


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. [Air International René Francillon Nov. 1999 "Fit for a King: Wings for Sovereigns, Presidents and Prime Ministers" pp. 289-290] 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. 161 Squadron was an operational military squadron, involved in the dropping of supplies and agents over occupied Europe throughout the War. [ [ History of No. 161 Squadron.] ] 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 Devon, Douglas Dakota, de Havilland Canada Chipmunk, Beagle Basset and Hawker Siddeley Andover aircraft.

In 1983 the RAF leased two BAe 146 aircraft to assess their suitability as replacements for The Queen's Flight's Andovers. [ [ Aircraft of the RAF: BAe 146] ] The trial was a success and three BAe 146-100s entered service with The Queen's Flight (as BAe 146 CC.2s) from 1986 as the flight's first jet aircraft.

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 MOD 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." [National Audit Office "Royal travel by air and rail"]

Other aircraft

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 VC10s of the now disbanded No. 10 Squadron.

Present arrangements

Travel options for the Royal Family and Ministers are aircraft of No. 32 Squadron, scheduled commercial flights and chartered aircraft. The Royal Family also has access to the Sikorsky S-76C+ of The Queen’s Helicopter Flight (TQHF).

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. [Sir Peter Gershon, CBE [ "Independent Air Travel Review"] ]

With the military burden on the VC-10 fleet increasing as the number of aircraft in service decreases (and they increase in obsolescence) the Prime Minister and senior members of the Royal Family have increasingly used chartered jets for long range travel (typically British Airways Boeing 777s). Concordes were also used to transport the Prime Minister and Royal Family from time to time, particularly to international conferences abroad.

The Queen's Helicopter Flight

The Queen's Helicopter Flight is a private operation and entirely part of the Royal Household. It uses a single Sikorsky S-76C+ twin-engined helicopter, registration G-XXEA. TQHF is part of The Queen's Private Secretary's department and is tasked by the Royal Travel Office at Buckingham Palace. The maintenance and hangarage contract for the Queen's helicopter was initially awarded to Air Hanson but has passed to successive companies, presently residing with PremiAir Aircraft Engineering at Blackbushe Airport in Hampshire. Additional tasking over and above that provided by the single S-76 is met by commercial charter companies using a variety of types, all flights being managed by TQHF.


The Labour government has consistently shown its support for a dedicated aircraft. The aircraft has been labelled "Blair Force One" by the media; a play on the existing United States equivalent, Air Force One, and the ex-Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Proposals made in 1998 were subject to criticism, with the government proposals failing to tally with the requirements of the Royal family of Queen Elizabeth II, who would share the aircraft. [BBC News 3 Aug, 1998 " [ "Blair flies into trouble"] "]

The proposals were re-evaluated in 2003, when the UK parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee recommended two dedicated aircraft with secure, advanced communication equipment for the use of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence; the latter position was then held by Geoff Hoon, who supported the recommendation. Hoon added that the proposed £80 million budget was worthwhile given the then-estimated £5.6 million yearly cost of ministerial travel in the "shuttle diplomacy" era. [BBC News 11 June, 2003 " [ "'Blair Force One' plans get boost"] "]

In December 2004 Sir Peter Gershon was asked by the government to undertake a study regarding the future requirements of Royal and ministerial air travel. His report, published in June 2006, recommended that "the Government establishes a new VIP air service based on two dedicated fixed-wing aircraft for the provision of air travel for the Royal Family and senior Ministers" and that this should be acquired through "a competition... to allow the private sector to bid to provide [the service] to private sector standards and disciplines." [Sir Peter Gershon, CBE [ "Independent Air Travel Review"] ]

The new aircraft will have communication facilities, the ability to carry press corps, and state of the art security systems. To reduce costs, the planes will not be purchased outright, but will be on permanent lease; the government estimates the cost at £12 million, claiming that it is comparable to the increased cost of Prime Ministerial travel (now £9.5 million yearly). The aircraft are proposed to be ready for service in early 2008. [BBC News June 20, 2006 " [ "PM to get two 'Blair Force Ones'"] "]

The plans have received opposition from many groups; the Conservative Party condemned diverting public funds to the project from core services like health, and the Liberal Democrats and pressure groups including Transport 2000 and Friends of the Earth condemned the environmental impact of personal jet travel. ["The Guardian" June 21, 2006 " [,,1802378,00.html "Blair Force One cleared for takeoff"] " ] However the UK is the only G8 country without dedicated ministerial aircraft, Peter Gershon's report also argued that chartered planes involves security risks and Tony Blair's 2006 trip to South Africa has been highlighted as an example of the problems of relying on such aircraft. [BBC News 13 Feb, 2006 " [ "Jet drama makes Blair miss vote"] "]


On 27 March 2008, Transport minister Jim Fitzpatrick announced via a written statement to the House of Commons that the government's plans to lease two aircraft for the sole use of the Royal family and senior ministers had been scrapped.

His statement read: "I am recommending that the needs of the users of this service can best be met through procuring a small aircraft for official travel within the UK, chartered air services for longer journeys involving small parties, and a continuation of existing arrangements with UK airlines for journeys involving large parties.

This approach ensures better value for money for the taxpayer whilst also minimising the environmental impact of royal and ministerial air travel, producing an estimated 10% saving on CO2 emissions."

The purchase of one small plane for British domestic use has been approved by the government. [ [ 'Blair Force One' plans scrapped] ]

ee also

*Air transports of Heads of State
*British Royal Train
* The former Royal Yacht

External links

* [ The Monarchy Today: Air travel]


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