Last month, all eyes were on the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana – the aftermath, how it affected the Royals and those closest to her, as well as the impact on the British public. But what about the people involved behind the scene?
Retired RAF Squadron Leader Graham Laurie spent nearly 20 years flying the Royals as part of The Queen’s Flight and on 31 August, 1997, he was assigned to fly Diana’s body back to London from Paris.
The ambassador for the RAF Benevolent Fund has helped raise over £25,000 for the charity through his talks, ‘The History of Royal Flying’, and below shares his memory of that fateful day, when the RAF was in the world’s spotlight.
It was Sunday 31 August, 1997. I was awoken by my son who came in from a party just after 2:00am. He said there had been a car crash in Paris. I was already scheduled to pick up Prince Charles and Prince Harry from Aberdeen later that day and fly them to RAF Lyneham, but I knew this day wouldn’t go as planned.
I arrived at RAF Northolt that morning and learned that Prince Charles instead wished to fly to Paris at lunchtime. We were scheduled to depart for Aberdeen at 10:30am, and at 10:00am we were told we might possibly be bringing Diana’s body back that evening.
This came as a surprise to me, as there was an Operation Order in place stating that in the event a Royal Family member died overseas, the coffin would not be returned to the UK until the fourth day.
This quick change of plans meant we needed to change aircraft so that the engineers could fit a flat floor in the rear hold, with ball bearings added to allow for a coffin to be easily maneuvered in and out.
We flew from Northolt to Aberdeen via RAF Wittering, where we picked up Diana’s sisters. Simultaneously, a Hercules from RAF Lyneham flew a lead-lined coffin out to Paris.
En route from Aberdeen to Paris/Villacoublay, whilst overflying London, RAF Northolt Operations asked what time we would arrive back in England. I wasn’t entirely sure, but estimated we’d spend about three hours in Paris in addition to an hour’s flight time back, and responded with 7:00pm.
What I didn’t know until I landed in Paris was that immediately after my phone call with Northolt Operations, the Ministry of Defence had announced to the world press that Diana’s coffin would arrive at 7:00pm. It was at this time I realised the intensity of this operation.
While Prince Charles and his staff went to the hospital to collect Diana, we waited patiently at the airport. When a priest, choir and guard of honour arrived, we quickly realised this would be a very formal departure complete with a short service. Prince Charles arrived about an hour before take-off and after the service we were given start clearance.
I remember taking off from Paris straight into a very low sun for our trip home. Both French and English Air Traffic gave us the perfect direct route and almost every controller asked us to pass on their condolences to Prince Charles.
We landed at RAF Northolt nine minutes before 7:00pm and parked briefly behind the Air Traffic Control tower, strategically hiding from public sight the two engineers who were undoing the straps holding the coffin in place.
As we slowly proceeded to the airport apron, hundreds of press and TV cameras watched our every move. At 7:00pm to the second, the engines cut and the rear door opened. The Queen’s Colour Squadron acted as pall bearers to the nearby hearse, doing a magnificent job considering they had no time to practice.
Just 20 minutes later we departed RAF Northolt for Aberdeen so that Prince Charles could return to Balmoral and the family, particularly Princes William and Harry.
At Aberdeen, much to my surprise, Prince Charles came up to the flight deck, as usual, to say goodbye. Afterwards, my crew informed me that the Prince and I spoke for nearly five minutes, but I honestly have no recollection of what was said. I suppose I said what anyone would have said in that situation.
The next day at lunchtime, I flew back to RAF Northolt with some of the Royals’ staff and that evening I went to Kensington Palace to lay some flowers. I went back on the Thursday to sign the book of condolence. On Saturday 6 September I flew Her Majesty The Queen and The Queen Mother to Aberdeen after the funeral.
That entire week was a daze, but on reflection, having flown Princess Diana over 200 times in the past, I was honoured to fly her on her final flight home.