King Charles

How the King learned to fly in a Chipmunk with a 'Royal warning light'

Watch: The aircraft that ensured the King's military flying career took off.

Long before he ascended to the throne, the young Prince Charles was already soaring to new heights as a skilled pilot.

In 1968, during his studies at Cambridge, the future king received rigorous Royal Air Force training that honed his abilities in the cockpit.

We look back at those early days when the prince developed a passion for flying that would last a lifetime.

The King began pilot training at the age of 20 and, like his father and other members of the Royal family, he was keen to get his wings from a young age.

Prince Charles began flying lessons led by then Squadron Leader Philip Pinney who spent two-and-a-half years training him.

Now a retired Group Captain, Pinney explained why so many of the Royals are fascinated with flying.

"From the start, he wanted to learn to fly. It gives the Royals immense pleasure. Of course, when you go solo, it doesn't matter whether you're a Royal or you or me, you're in the air and if the engine stops, you're on your own.

"There's no bodyguard, there's no one else. You've got to solve the problem yourself. And I think all the Royals have really enjoyed flying for that reason," Gp Capt Pinney said.

Prince Charles learned to fly in small single-propeller aircraft with a tail wheel – Chipmunk WP903.

Prince Charle in Chipmunk CREDIT BRITISH PATHE
Prince Charles training in Chipmunk aircraft (Picture: British Pathé).

The King was a talented pilot, but as heir to the throne, he required many special procedures.

One of which was having a 'Royal warning light' at the front of his Chipmunk that would warn others that the prince was airborne.

Because of its aerodynamic shape and bright red colouring, the warning light was nicknamed the parrot.

It is the only aircraft in the world to have a 'parrot' at its helm, and it was used by more than one Royal to learn how to fly.

King Charles' father, Prince Philip also learned to fly on a Chipmunk aircraft. 

Gp Capt Pinney revealed he prepared for the role of teaching Prince Charles, by reading old reports about his father, the Duke of Edinburgh, during his time as a trainee pilot.

The group captain said he would compare Prince Charles to his father and was very proud of the result.

Prince Charles was one of many Cambridge University students who learned how to fly as part of their studies.

In the first year of training the prince did about 80 sorties on the Chipmunk, earning him a flying badge which was given to university students after they completed their training.

The Prince's training went smoothly and, at the end of the first year, he was able to do aerobatics, circuits for landings and night flying.

After a year he was ready for his first solo flight.

"I suppose one of the most nervous things, in a way, for an instructor is, of course, when you send them out solo and you get out," recalls Gp Capt Pinney.  

"And I had the terrible misfortune that the heir to the throne said to the press a day or two later: 'Oh my instructor got out and said Oh you're on your own mate'.

"I'm quite sure I didn't say that but, nevertheless, whatever words I used, it was wonderful. And of course, he flew very well, and we had no trouble."

Chipmunk WP903  CREDIT BFBS
Chipmunk WP903 in 2023, looking exactly the same as she did when Prince Charles flew her in 1968.

According to the King's flying instructor, the Chipmunk in some ways is a more difficult aircraft to learn in than a jet because it swings on take-off and landing and requires a bit more 'finesse'.

Getting the badge was only the first step in King Charles' career as a pilot. 

Next, he learned to fly the Basset CC1, clocking a further 90 hours before moving on to a full jet training course.

The King went on to receive his RAF wings from then Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Denis Spotswood, in August 1971. 

He then joined the Royal Navy and during his career with the Senior Service, he served as a helicopter pilot alongside Royal Marines on board HMS Hermes, where his piloting skills were in high demand.

Gp Capt Pinney said it was a great honour to help the King get his wings: "When I see him on parade as, no doubt, at the coronation, he'll be wearing his RAF wings.

"It gives one immense pride to think, well, we did that and it was just a wonderful opportunity to do it and one travelled to places and things that I wouldn't probably have done in a normal career."

One of the benefits of teaching the heir to the throne was that he knew the terrain below better than any other student and never got lost.

Today, Chipmunk WP903 is owned privately by a group of seven enthusiasts, kept in the private hangars at Shuttleworth, and every year or so it still takes Gp Capt Philip Pinney to the skies.

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