Queen Elizabeth has flown over 1 million air miles in her lifetime, and PBS's Secrets of the Royal Flight is going inside the key to being a monarch on the move

By Stephanie Petit
November 20, 2020 11:13 AM
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The royal family is up, up and away.

Queen Elizabeth has flown over 1 million air miles in her lifetime, and PBS's Secrets of the Royal Flight is going inside the key to being a monarch on the move. The episode, airing this Sunday at 10 p.m. ET, unveils stories from the people who helped wrangle the Queen's beloved corgis on board and organized 12 tons of luggage from the monarch's 44,000-mile Commonwealth tour in 1953.

Not only are the royals world travelers, but they're now several generations of experienced pilots as well. In an exclusive clip of Secrets of Royal Travel, aviation journalist Keith Wilson explains that Prince Philip learned how to fly in 1952 — a tradition carried on by son Prince Charles and grandsons Prince William and Prince Harry, who both served in the military as helicopter pilots.

In fact, William reportedly caused a stir as an air ambulance pilot — with Queen's Flight pilot Graham Laurie recalling rumors that people were "trying to fall off roads to break their legs," hoping to be rescued by the royal.

Prince Charles
| Credit: WATFORD/Mirrorpix via Getty

However, several members of the royal family have died in air travel accidents. Prince George, Duke of Kent was killed in a military air crash in 1942, while Prince William of Gloucester died at age 30 in 1972 while taking part in an air show.

Prince Charles himself had a close call in 1994 while at the controls when high winds and awkward landing caused the plane to pop a tire, overshoot the runway and crash. No one was hurt, but the incident caused over $1 million in damages to the plane.

Prince William and Prince Harry
| Credit: Chris Jackson/Getty
Prince Philip
| Credit: PA Images via Getty

Although Prince Charles was absolved of any wrongdoing, as he was technically a passenger who was invited to fly the aircraft, he gave up his flying license a year later.

"With hindsight, which is a wonderful thing, I should have got him to overshoot and try a different approach, but I told him to land, so he did exactly what he was told to do," Laurie says.

Prince Charles
| Credit: Fox Photos/Getty

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Despite the possible dangers involved in air travel, royal historian David McClure suspects that's exactly why the royals are so drawn to it.

Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth
| Credit: Bettmann/Getty
Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth
| Credit: Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty

"Part of the attraction of air travel must be the risks. It's a sense of adventure. I suspect they quite like the thrill of putting their life on the line," he explains. "But there might also be a deeper, psychological reason they're attracted to flight: because they live most of their life in a gilded cage. Their life is regimented. When they go up in the air, they're almost free. They're literally spreading their wings."