With his family's support, he pilots a large, troop-carrier for the Royal Air Force

By Simon Perry
April 30, 2008 08:55 AM
Cpl. Ian Houlding, MOD/AP

Prince William took control of a large troop-carrier plane for a secret mission to Afghanistan, PEOPLE confirmed Wednesday.

Once there, the prince, 25 – who is nearing the end of his four-month tour with Britain’s Royal Air Force – got the chance to hear first-hand from troops fighting the Taliban.

“The visit aimed to put into context his training over the last four months,” a spokesman for the prince said in a statement Wednesday. “He [got] a feel for out-of-area operations … He met personnel from a number of units, giving them the opportunity to explain their experiences.”

The mission – which had the support of his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, and his father, Prince Charles – began in secret on Sunday, with William helping to pilot a C17 Globemaster. During his 30-hour deployment, the second-in-line to the throne spent three hours on the ground in Kandahar meeting with air force personnel, and three hours at another base in Al Udeid, Qatar.

The engagement comes after not long after William sparked controversy by landing a Chinook helicopter in a field behind the home of his girlfriend, Kate Middleton. He also flew to a bachelor party with his brother, Prince Harry. (One British paper branded him a “show off,” and another accused him of wasting taxpayers’ money.)

But insiders deny that the flight to Afghanistan was designed to counter the bad publicity.

“Prince William joining a flight into operational theatre was under consideration last year,” his spokesman said in the statement. “Confirmation and detailed planning for the flights began at the beginning of April.”

This is likely to be William’s last major operation during his time in the RAF. In June he will join the Royal Navy for a two-month attachment – and may even take to the high seas in a warship.

The engagements are designed to give William the widespread military experience he may need for his future royal role.