Queen Elizabeth II’s Aviation Heritage

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As the British nation, the Commonwealth, and the whole world, mourn the loss of the second-longest serving monarch in history, we wanted to look back at how Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II travelled on numerous aircraft throughout her life. 

Holding the highest office in the UK for over seventy years, Queen Elizabeth II was frequently required to travel internationally. In that time, she has flown million of miles around the globe as the head of state and ambassador for Great Britain. During those journeys, she has used various aircraft, including private jets or helicopters.

The list ranges from the propellor-driven aircraft in the 50s, supersonic flight on Concorde in the 70s and the iconic Boeing 747 from the 2000s.

1952: The Argonaut

On January 31st, 1952, Princess Elizabeth boarded a British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC)Argonaut with her husband, Prince Philip. 

She was on tour to Kenya to stand in for King George VI, who at the time was too ill to travel. The decision to fly with the Argonaut, an upgraded Douglas DC-4 produced by Canadair, drew significant attention and criticism.

At the time, BOAC usually flew its British-built Handley Page Hermes aircraft on routes to Kenya, and replacing this with a Canadian-built propliner for the royal visit was seen as a snub. But Key Aero reports that Her Royal Highness's requirements instrumented the change of plane. She wished to stop on the flight from London to Nairobi at El Adem in Libya, which was too much for the Hermes to make. Hence, one of BOAC's 22 Argonauts was tasked to carry the future Queen on her trip to Africa.

The Queen's Flight

The idea of having aircraft at the disposal of the Royal Family was brought to life long before Elizabeth became the reigning monarch. Between 1928 - 1936, the Prince of Wales created a fleet of thirteen aircraft, and when in 1936, he became King Edward VIII, the world's first head of state aircraft unit was formed - The King's Flight.

At first, this unit used the King's de Havilland Dragon Rapide but was soon upgraded to the Airspeed Envoy. The fleet was constantly evolving and, after WW2, comprised of 4 Vickers Viking C. 2's, which were only suitable for short-range flights. Hence, for international flights such as the 1952 tour to Australia, New Zealand and Africa, larger aircrafts needed to be used, such as Argonaut charted from BOAC.

When Elizabeth ascended to the throne, the "King's Flight" became the "Queen's Flight". Over the years, it operated various aircraft the Queen and royal family members utilised. The royal fleet included Avro York, Vickers Viking, de Havilland Heron, de Havilland Devon, Hawker Siddeley Andover and a DHC-1 Chipmunk.

In 1961, the Queen for the first time visited Nepal and for this journey, two Douglas Dakotas planes briefly joined the Queen's Flight – KN645 and KN452. Currently, the "Queen's Flight" comprises two Sikorsky S-76C++, an AgustaWestland AW109SP, the Airbus A330 MRTT, an Airbus A321-200neo and a Dassault Falcon 900LX.

1957: A Flight on Eisenhower's Columbine III

In 1957 the Queen visited the USA for the first time and began in Jamestown, Virginia, Washington. The flight to Washington was undertaken by President Eisenhower's own Columbine III, the only Lockheed VC-121E ever built.

The 1970s: The Concorde

As aviation technology evolved, so did the Queen. In 1977 the Queen flew onboard the Concorde for the first time. The aircraft, which was registered G-BOAE, was flown by British Airways and marked the Queen's first supersonic flight and the first time Concorde landed in Barbados.

After this trip, the Concorde became Queen's favourite aircraft. Afterwards, Her Majesty travelled onboard the supersonic jet several times to Kuwait in 1979, Barbados in 1987 and 2003, the Middle East in 1984 and USA in 1991. 

The 1980s - 1990s: "The Queen of the Skies'"

In 1954, Australian carrier Qantas first hosted Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II when she flew to Australia for her royal tour. Back then, the Queen flew on the airline's Boeing 707. Afterwards, the Queen frequently flew with Qantas for her royal visits to Australia.

As the airline continued evolving and upgrading its fleet, in 1971, it introduced the new Boeing 747-200s. Furthermore, in 1989, the Australian carrier's long-haul fleet was upgraded with its first Boeing 747-400.

The Queen's special visit was on February 18th, 1992, when she returned to Australia for the 150th anniversary of the Sydney incorporation. For this return, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh arrived at Sydney's Airport on the Qantas 747 aircraft.

In 1995, the Queen again broke with tradition by taking a regular commercial flight to New Zealand. She flew from London via Los Angeles to Auckland on NZ1, the flagship route for Air New Zealand at the time, utilising its own jet, the Boeing 747-400. 

1995: Merging with the RAF

Owning the whole aircraft is definitely convenient, but it comes with a high cost. In April 1995, The Queen's Flight was merged into No. 32 Squadron RAF, which became No. 32 "The Royal" Squadron. This shift saw the end of RAF jets usage by the Royal Family, with only two trips undertaken in 2010 and 2011.

The 2000s : The Boeing 777

On March 12th, 2006, the Queen flew on a British Airways Boeing 777-200ER to Canberra after a Singapore stop before travelling to Melbourne for the Commonwealth Games.

In October 2011, during one of the Queen's last royal trips, Her Majesty with Duke of Edinburgh flew on another British Airways Boeing 777-200ER registered as G-YMMP. While this trip marked the last Australian tour for the Queen, it coincidentally marked the national carrier's first non-stop flight from Perth to London. 

The Queen's Helicopter Flight

A much more suitable method of air transport for flights with closer or domestic destinations tends to be by helicopter. With their ability to land easily on palace grounds and fly short distances directly to the destination, they have become a far more efficient travel option. Currently, The Queen's Helicopter Flight operates 2 Sikorsky S-76C+ twinned engine helicopters, capable of speeds up to 178mph.

Over the years, Her Majesty has used various aircraft to travel globally. In her over seventy years of reign, from her first flight as Queen on a BOAC Argonaut in 1952 through flying the supersonic jet - Concorde in 1977 to her last royal trip on Boeing 777-200ER, she has experienced the world changes and the evolution of the aviation word.

She has been a constant figure throughout our lives and will forever be admired for her commitment to service and duty; and as an inspirational woman who demonstrated true global leadership ahead of her time. 

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