RAF at 100: Royal Air Force celebrates centenary with spectacular Buckingham Palace flypast

Heroism of servicemen and women who risked their lives over century of conflict hailed with Westminster Abbey memorial and military parade

Dozens of aircraft fly over Buckingham Palace as the Royal Air Force celebrates 100 years

The Royal Air Force (RAF) is celebrating its centenary year today.

The Red Arrows and three of Britain’s new F-35 Lightning stealth fighters were among the 100 aircraft taking part in a flypast over Buckingham Palace, along with Puma and Chinook helicopters, a Lancaster bomber, Spitfires, Hurricanes, Tornados and 22 Typhoons helping to spell out “100” in the skies over London.

Squadron Leader Mike Child said organising the display had taken “months of planning”, with pilots undertaking simulator training to ensure they remained perfectly synchronised.

The Queen was joined at a service of remembrance at Westminster Abbey this morning by Princes Charles, William and Harry and the Duchesses of Cornwall, Cambridge and Sussex, at which prime minister Theresa May gave a reading from Hebrews 11:32-12:2.

Defence secretary Gavin Williamson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were also among the 2,200 guests in attendance.

Following the service, the Queen presented a new Queen’s Colour to the RAF in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace before making a brief speech in which she hailed the “tenacity, skill and gallantry” of its personnel.

A uniformed parade down The Mall outside the palace was also held to honour the thousands of men and women who have served since the RAF’s founding on 1 April 1918 in the final months of the First World War.

RAF 100 flypast: Watch the route the planes will take

On that date, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service merged to form the world’s first independent air force at the War Cabinet's instigation, following criticism of Britain's air defences. Its first chief of the air staff was Lord Hugh Trenchard.

Taking the grand Hotel Cecil on The Strand in central London for its headquarters, the RAF primarily operated as a Commonwealth peacekeeping force in the interwar years before coming into its own during the Second World War.

Today also marks the 78th anniversary of the Battle of Britain at the height of that conflict, when the Air Force - supported by Polish, Czech and Slovak airmen – successfully defended the UK from a German Luftwaffe onslaught and caused the indefinite postponement of Adolf Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain, Operation Sea Lion.

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” Sir Winston Churchill said in tribute in the House of Commons on 20 August 1940.

Other famous missions followed, including the daring Dambusters raid led by wing commander Guy Gibson and deploying Barnes Wallis’s ingenious bouncing bomb, an endeavour that celebrated its 75th anniversary in May.

RAF aircraft fly in formation over Buckingham Palace in London to mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force

In his address at Westminster Abbey today, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said the RAF had been a “decisive factor in saving this country’s independence, its democracy and its freedom; its hope of civilisation and its contribution to humanity for the future”.

“It is also right to remember with sorrow and again profound thanksgiving the scores of thousands who have given their lives in service as part of the RAF,” he added.

The thrill of life inside the cockpit has rarely been better captured than by Spitfire pilot and poet John Gillespie Magee Jr, whose stirring sonnet “High Flight”, written moments before his death on 18 August 1941, remains a firm RAF favourite and was read at this morning’s service.

High Flight

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air....

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.

Where never lark, or even eagle flew —

And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

You can watch the day’s commemorations unfold live on BBC One

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