How the Cabinet trembled as the Duke took off

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IT WAS 1 October 1952 and two days later Britain would test its first atom bomb, but that morning the Cabinet had something more important on its mind: the Duke of Edinburgh's flying lessons.

The Duke's wish to qualify as a pilot was reported by the Secretary of State for Air, and it met with the coolest possible response from the Prime Minister. "In view of his public position and responsibilities," Churchill declared, "His Royal Highness should not expose himself to unnecessary risks."

Besides, who knew where it might lead? "Once the training now proposed had been completed, he might be tempted to take the much greater risk of learning to fly jet aircraft. And, once he was a qualified pilot, he might wish to pilot aircraft in which the Queen was a passenger."

Churchill's anxieties are revealed in documents recently released at the Public Record Office in London, which show that the Cabinet in the Fifties discussed the worrying matter of the Duke's aeronautics no fewer than eight times. The papers reveal not only the caution of a generation of ministers brought up for the most part in a world without aeroplanes but also the quiet determination with which the Duke got his way.

Churchill's doubts in 1952 were overcome. His colleagues pointed out that George VI and the Dukes of Windsor, Gloucester and Kent had all flown. What was more, "flying was now widely regarded as a normal means of transport, and young men who were in a position to learn to fly thought it little more hazardous than learning to drive a motor-car".

The Prime Minister agreed to allow lessons, but undertook to secure from the Duke a promise that he would not seek to fly jets or pilot a plane with the Queen on board. This was duly given.

Twice in 1953 the Duke's exemplary progress was reported to ministers and their approval was sought and obtained for him to graduate from Chipmunk light planes to Harvards and then to Oxfords. He was even authorised to make a night-flight, but the Cabinet "re-affirmed their earlier view that the Duke of Edinburgh should not fly jet aircraft." Then, in 1955, the new Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, reported that the Duke, with 276 flying hours under his belt, had asked to fly a helicopter and he had given his assent. Eden further reported: "He has also expressed a wish to fly as a passenger in a Canberra [jet bomber], and to take over the controls when the aircraft was at an appropriate altitude."

Despite all the earlier reservations , this was allowed, "on the understanding that an RAF pilot would remain in charge of the aircraft throughout the flight".

A month later the Duke wanted to fly a glider. This time the Cabinet declared that the flight must be in a two-seater with an experienced pilot, "otherwise the Duke of Edinburgh would be dissuaded".

By 1956 the request was to fly helicopters off aircraft carriers. By now ministers were becoming numb, and offered little protest beyond suggesting that "the Prime Minister might take a suitable opportunity to ascertain whether The Queen herself was concerned at the additional risk."

Three years later came the final entry. The Duke wanted to fly a new light aircraft, the Turbulent. Hitherto, the general rule had been that he should have a qualified pilot at his side at all times, but as the Turbulent was a single-seater this would be impossible.

Holding their collective breath, ministers decided to say yes, but with certain conditions: "The flight would be limited to an area within sight of the airfield . . . it should take place when the weather was clear and not liable to sudden deterioration; and no other flying should be allowed at the airfield while the Duke of Edinburgh was in the air."

The spirit of Churchillian caution survived.