Prince Harry “counted them out and counted them in” after giving up his seat in a Spitfire in the biggest gathering of Battle of Britain aircraft since the Second World War.
A total of 33 Spitfires, Hurricanes and Bristol Blenheim bombers flew from Goodwood Aerodrome in West Sussex before dispersing across wartime airfields over the south of England for the event to mark the conflict’s 75th anniversary.
The prince, on his 31st birthday, was due to have a seat in one of four two-seater Spitfires taking part in the flypast. But when one of the vintage aircraft developed mechanical problems he decided to step aside to ensure the event’s special guests still got to fly.
His spokesman said he wanted to make sure that 95-year-old Tom Neil, an ex-wing commander and Battle of Britain Hurricane and Spitfire pilot, would still be able to take part. And he wanted to ensure that a former para and an RAF corporal who won places on a Spitfire scholarship training programme were also still able to take part in the display.
Nathan Forster, a former private in the Parachute Regiment, from South Shields, Tyne and Wear, suffered severe damage to his left leg in a blast while on patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2011.
Corporal Alan Robinson, an RAF aircraft technician, from Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, lost a leg in a motorbike accident.
The prince’s spokesman said: “Prince Harry wanted to make sure they could take part in the flypast. It’s a case of counting them out and counting them in.”
The comment is an apparent reference to a line from former BBC journalist Brian Hanrahan, which he uttered during the Falklands War.
Although unable to reveal the number of RAF planes which had just taken part in a mission, he had reassured viewers by saying: “I counted them all out, and I counted them all back.”
Prince Harry took the chance to wish Mr Forster well as he took the prince’s seat in the Spitfire PV202.
After waving him off, Harry took a photograph of the plane on his mobile phone before it manoeuvred on to the runway.
As the prince, dressed in the green flying suit he would have worn in the aircraft, watched the Spitfire take off, a group of schoolchildren sang Happy Birthday to him.
The display, which had been delayed by two hours because of poor weather, was a tribute to the Second World War pilots famously dubbed “The Few” by Winston Churchill for their efforts defeating the Luftwaffe.
During summer and autumn 1940, 544 personnel from Fighter Command died as the RAF battled above southern England to force back the threat of invasion.
The 75th anniversary is likely to be the last major anniversary at which the surviving members of the pivotal conflict – who are now all aged well into their 90s – will be fit to take part.
The event was organised by the Boultbee Flight Academy, based in Chichester, and two of the aircraft – a Spitfire and a Hurricane – had fought in the famous battle.
After Mr Neil landed, he said from the cockpit: “It was delightful.”
Mr Forster said his favourite moment was seeing the silhouetted aircraft on the cliffs of The Needles on the Isle of Wight. “It was magnificent, an absolute privilege,” he said.