The Queen’s official fleet of planes is to be sold off as part of defence cuts in a move that will force her to borrow Boris Johnson’s Union Flag jet.
Airliners used by the Royal Family since the 1980s will be withdrawn from service next year to save money – leaving the sovereign without a dedicated aircraft for the first time in her reign.
With no plans for a replacement for the four BAE-146 passenger jets, the Queen, Prince Charles and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will have to share the Prime Minister’s RAF Voyager plane, which received a controversial £900,000 makeover last year.
The Queen gives a wave as the plane prepares to depart from a royal tour of Fiji
The four BAE-146 passenger jets will be taken out of service next year, meaning the royals will have to borrow the Prime Minister’s plane
The move is part of the Ministry of Defence’s Integrated Review which has already caused controversy due to plans to reduce the Army by 10,000 soldiers and for important ships and frontline aircraft to be withdrawn from service.
The results of the review are due to be formally revealed in two stages later this month, but the Mail can reveal that one of the key announcements will be the grounding of the Queen’s planes.
The four BAE-146 regional airliners are part of the RAF’s historic 32 (Royal) Squadron, previously known as The Queen’s Flight. It means the squadron, which is based at RAF Northolt on the outskirts of London, will be left with just one AW-109 helicopter, which is suitable for only short flights in Britain.
The loss of the Queen’s fleet of aircraft echoes the decommissioning of her personal yacht, HMS Britannia. In 1994, then prime minister John Major decided the costs of refitting her were too great, and the Queen famously shed a tear when the yacht was taken out of service in 1997.
Last night Tobias Ellwood, chairmain of the Commons defence committee, said: ‘The selling off of the BAE-146s will leave a gaping void in the RAF’s ability to meet military and civil taskings.
The BAE-146 is a highly valued versatile aircraft that has served senior members of the Royal Family, military commanders and prime ministers with distinction for decades.’
Prince Charles cradles a young Prince William as they arrive at Aberdeen Airport en route to Balmoral Castle
The Queen’s corgis depart the plane after a journey in 1998 and arrive at Heathrow Airport
Labour MP Gareth Thomas, whose Harrow West constituency is close to RAF Northolt, said: ‘Ministers need to explain as a matter of urgency how the Queen and Royal Family will be transported to fill crucial royal and Commonwealth responsibilities. They continue to deserve proper support not least as they are one of Britain’s most popular and visible international assets’.
Mr Johnson provoked anger in June last year when he rebranded his official Voyager jet so it resembled the planes flown by the US and Russian presidents.
On his instructions, a gun-metal grey Voyager was repainted in bright red, white and blue and with a Union Flag design emblazoned on its tailfin.
At the time, even Conservative MPs expressed disbelief that the Prime Minister would spend so much money on a ‘vanity project’ at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and when public finances were so stretched.
Yesterday, Downing Street announced that the results of the Integrated Review of foreign, defence, development and security policy will be set out by the Prime Minister on March 16. It will be followed by a Defence Command Paper on March 22 which will set out the MoD’s plans for modernising the Armed Forces.
The inside of the plane, showing the Queen and Prince Philip, featured in the 1969 production the Royal Family
Only last week, the Mail revealed that the review will see the entire fleet of the transporter plane favoured by the SAS grounded – despite fears the cost-cutting move will put soldiers’ lives at risk.
Retiring all 14 of the ‘Super Hercules’ C-130J – used on Special Forces operations against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – will also jeopardise hundreds of UK defence jobs as the aircraft are maintained by British engineering companies. The RAF is also reducing its order of spy aircraft used to provide early warning of approaching Russian jets, the E-7 Wedgetail, and is expected to slash its order of F-35 fighter jets from 138 to just 48.
According to defence experts, this would not be enough to protect both of the Navy’s new £3.3 billion aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. But the royal flights of the Royal Air Force have a particularly unique place in aviation history. The 32 (Royal) Squadron won its first battle honours on the Western Front and the Somme in 1916 and most recently its planes contributed to operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
Established at RAF Hendon in 1936 during the reign of King Edward VIII, The King’s Flight was charged with the duty of transporting members of the Royal Family by air on short-haul and long-haul flights. Some members of the Royal Family were also taught to fly.
Renamed The Queen’s Flight in 1952, the unit continued its duties until its disbandment in 1995 – when 32 (Royal) Squadron came into being.
Until 2004, planes used by the Royal Family were liveried in distinctive red, white and blue markings – not dissimilar to Mr Johnson’s makeover of his Voyager aircraft – but these were removed in 2004 for security reasons. Amid fears that senior Royals could be targeted by jihadis, the MoD ordered that the planes should look more like civilian jets.
The RAF is under pressure to save money and selling off the BAE-146s is considered a step towards balancing the books. The planes are more than three times as expensive to fly as the Voyagers – at £6,700 per flying hour against £2,000 for the Voyager.
The sell-off of the four BAE-146s almost certainly secures the future of the RAF’s Red Arrows display team. A source said: ‘With every major spending review it is a case of axe the Red Arrows or make savings with the Royal Flight.’
Last night the MoD said: ‘We will continue to offer suitable air transport for VIPs and commanders, however we will not shy away from difficult decisions and will always seek to deliver maximum value for money in our procurement programmes.’