It's the stuff of fantasy: a charming prince arrives at his girlfriend's rural English estate, swooping in on his trusty steed. But when Prince William flew a Royal Air Force Chinook helicopter to Kate Middleton's garden earlier this month, he should have known that his romantic gesture wouldn't lead to a fairytale ending. Rather than emerging as the knight in shining armor, William has drawn criticism for his personal use of military craft and reopened a controversy in Britain about his and his brother's privileged role in the armed forces during a time of war.
The trip in question was a 16-mile sortie from a Royal Air Force (RAF) base in Hampshire, southern England to a field next to Middleton's house in the county of Berkshire. The Ministry of Defense says the trip was part of a training mission designed to help teach the Prince, who is on a brief detachment to the air force from the army, to fly in combat situations. The Chinook, a $20 million twin-rotor helicopter, has been a mainstay for combat troop transport since the Vietnam War.
But it is up for debate just how official William's training program has been. In a separate trip on April 11, the Prince piloted a Chinook to his cousin's bachelor party on the Isle of Wight in southern England. On that trip, he stopped off at Woolwich Barracks in London to pick up his brother, Prince Harry, who has been stationed there since returning in late February from a 10-week army deployment in Afghanistan's embattled Helman Province.
Prince William, a second lieutenant in the British Army, has been on a four-month, abbreviated training mission with the RAF. His training culminated in an April 11 ceremony in which he was "awarded his wings" that is, officially made a pilot amid fanfare and press attention. But after news surfaced of William's splashy arrival at his girlfriend's estate, the Ministry of Defense was forced to issue a release defending the sortie as a legitimate exercise. Unusually, it gave details of the mission, saying that William did not exit the Chinook at the Middleton property, but simply practiced landings and take-offs.
The Ministry of Defense has also said that the flight to the Isle of Wight, via London, gave William exposure to different flying conditions. But that flight, which William and Harry used to join Peter Phillips, son of Princess Anne, for his bachelor party, took place after William had already earned his wings, raising questions about why it was cleared as a training mission.
Several British papers have reported that the head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, is furious and has demanded a "line-by-line" explanation of what happened on these trips and who authorized them. The RAF has long complained about a shortage of Chinook helicopters in Afghanistan. For years officials at NATO have been exhorting its member states to pony up more transport helicopters for that mission, with limited success.
Opposition politicians in the British House of Commons on Monday used news of the trips to highlight again what has become a recurring attack against the incumbent Labour government: that it has failed to provide adequate equipment and support to serving soldiers.
Nick Harvey, defense spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, told the Daily Mail newspaper: "[William's trips] are going to leave a lot of people wondering where the priority lies if very serious helicopters are being made available for this sort of thing at a time when they are in such extreme need."
The controversy also touches on an ongoing debate over Britain's warrior princes. Prince William, and to a lesser extent his brother Harry, has been the country's cherished son since the premature death of his mother, Princess Diana. The struggle for the military has been to harness the image of the well-favored child the codename of William's flight training was "Golden Kestrel" while also protecting him from the prospect of sudden death in a combat zone. When news broke that Prince Harry had been serving in the dangerous Helmand province, many British papers lionized his bravery and commended the military for treating him as "one of the lads." But others criticized the Ministry of Defense for allowing Harry to be put in harm's way.
William's cushy flight training has drawn criticism, but so would his being deployed to a combat zone an unlikely prospect after Harry's experience. Further proof, perhaps, that while it has its undeniable perks, being a British royal is no job for the faint-hearted.