Britain's Prince William announced on Monday that he will train with the Royal Air Force (RAF) to be a full-time search and rescue pilot. His surprise career choice prolongs a relationship with the military that has periodically come under strain through a series of controversies surrounding the privileged role William and his younger brother Harry have in Britain's armed services.
For years William, 26, has professed a desire to dip into various professions in preparation for his ascension to the British throne. For the last two years, he has undertaken a number of training courses in the military. But instead of ending that military chapter and moving on to another, he has decided to enroll in an 18-month training program to fly Sea King rescue helicopters. The announcement follows news that he would not be allowed to serve in Afghanistan after his younger brother Harry was abruptly withdrawn from the front lines in the dangerous Helmand province in February amid concerns for his safety.
William's career choice within the RAF seems equally influenced by safety concerns. The Sea King helicopter, a service workhorse for some 30 years, is used almost exclusively for civilian rescue operations such as flood relief, stranded ships, and injured or lost mountain climbers. "It has been a real privilege to have spent the past year understanding and experiencing all aspects of the British armed forces," William said in a statement. "I now want to build on the experience and training I have received to serve operationally especially because, for good reasons, I was not able to deploy to Afghanistan this year."
William, who is a lieutenant in the army, learned to fly through a brief training course with the RAF this spring. A storm of controversy was raised in April after it was revealed that he used official helicopter training missions to visit the property of his girlfriend, Kate Middleton, and fly his brother to a bachelor party. According to British newspapers, those sorties resulted in the head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, demanding a "line-by-line" explanation of their authorization and left columnists debating whether the royals' involvement with the military was a sideshow for forces already overstretched in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The RAF, for its part, has clearly been keen to harness the public relations boost of brandishing a "warrior prince" in its ranks. William's uncle, Prince Andrew, was a Royal Navy helicopter pilot during the 1982 Falklands conflict. William was "awarded his wings" that is, made a pilot in a training course that was shortened from the usual four years to less than four months. But it seems to be a happy fit. While his brother Harry has crowed about the joys of being "stuck in" as "one of the lads" in the Army, William has thrived at higher altitudes. He said yesterday that his time in the RAF "made me realize how much I love flying" and that search and rescue allowed him to fulfill the altruistic impulses that informs his charity work, as it did his mother's.
"Joining Search and Rescue is a perfect opportunity for me to serve in the forces operationally, while contributing to a vital part of the country's emergency services," he said.
And just as William is happy with his new job, it surely won't be disappointing for his legion of female fans to imagine a handsome prince charging through the mist, rescuing someone in distress.