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Work gives Prince William danger -- and normality

by Staff Writers
Anglesey, United Kingdom (AFP) April 15, 2011
He might be Britain's future king, but Prince William's colleagues waste no opportunity to mock his clothes, his TV appearances and the countless souvenirs adorned with his face.

"We've been drying our dishes with William and Kate tea-towels," said Flight Lieutenant Thomas Bunn, a pilot at RAF Valley in north Wales where William has worked as a search and rescue helicopter pilot for the past six months.

It may not offer the respect usually accorded to the second-in-line to the throne, but the military provides a semblance of normal life for William and Kate Middleton, who live near the base and will continue to do so after their April 29 wedding.

Working 24-hour shifts with regular sorties into the surrounding mountains or sea, it also provides William with far more excitement than the usual royal ribbon-cutting.

In November, just weeks after he qualified, the 28-year-old found himself in dense fog trying to navigate his Sea King helicopter down the side of a mountain, where a man below had had a heart attack and urgently needed help.

As co-pilot, William's job in the four-man team was to position the aircraft so his medically-trained colleague could winch himself down to pick up the patient, who was then flown quickly to a nearby hospital.

"The guy is still alive because of the efforts of Flight Lieutenant Wales," recalled that colleague, 30-year-old Keith Best.

Flight Lieutenant Wales, as William is known, has taken part in 15 rescue missions since he qualified in September, and his instructors described him as a "good, solid student pilot".

When they are not flying, the crew wait on base, ready to deploy within minutes.

And in the downtime, the prince's colleagues treat him as one of the lads, ribbing him as they would any fellow pilot -- except, of course, with William they have so much more ammunition.

As well as the tea-towels, his unit have bought cheap plastic souvenir cups and a cushion adorned with the faces of William and Kate, while they have also mocked him for the brown jumper he wore in his Mario Testino engagement photographs.

"We watch William on the news occasionally, it's always good when he's in the room -- if we think there's some fun that can be made then we'll make it," said Bunn, although he admitted that the prince gave as good as he got.

The prince meanwhile must also accept the military hierarchy, and his squadron leader, Iain Wright, is one of a handful of people he has to call "sir".

"Usually it's boss, occasionally if it's required he'll call me sir, but in the air we always refer to each other on first name terms," Wright said.

RAF Valley is the closest William will get to frontline military action. Unlike his younger brother Harry, who served 10 weeks with the army in Afghanistan in 2007-08, second-in-line to the throne William is too important to put in the line of fire.

He has expressed frustration with this in the past, but at least search and rescue allows him to take action.

In a recent interview, he described the team as a "big family in the sky", saying it was a "fantastic job", even if it did sometimes get "hairy".

The danger and the long shifts can play havoc with family life, however, something Kate will already be getting used to.

"The wives are the unsung heroes. The work that we do sometimes isn't very nice, and we rely on our support networks. They do play a major part in the search and rescue effort," said 30-year-old Best.

The royals have a long history of military service -- William is part of the fourth successive generation to have served as a pilot -- and that may explain why he is treated like a normal person.

In return, William's colleagues gain a glimpse of his celebrity world, including details of the doomed bid he made with David Beckham for England to host the World Cup 2018 -- gold dust for the football-mad squadron.

Plus of course, they are all invited to the wedding. William and Kate have asked 27 of his colleagues on April 29, among 1,900 guests.

"We didn't expect anything like this. It's a lovely surprise and a great honour," said Wright, William's boss, adding that there was only one drawback -- his wife did not have a clue what to wear.

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