When Princess Diana died on August 31, 1997, it was a moment of national mourning the likes of which England hadn’t seen in decades — and which the royal family, who had since severed ties with the ex-Princess of Wales, took a moment to reply to with the urgency it required. By 1997, Diana and ex-husband Prince Charles were firmly at odds with one another, and the former was considered a threat to the reputation of the royal family. Queen Elizabeth II was reportedly so unmoved by her passing that she first declined to let Charles use the royal aircraft to recover her body from Paris — but Charles, showing a surprisingly fierce allegiance to the mother of his children, insisted. The royal pilot who took that heavy trip, Graham Laurie, opens up about traveling with Charles in an exclusive clip from PBS’ Secrets of Royal Travel.
PBS’ series on royal travel is highlighting “Secrets of the Royal Flight,” which will air in full on Sunday, Nov. 22. Laurie, the royal pilot who flew Charles to Paris after her fatal crash, describes in this sneak peek the surreal experience of watching London come together to mourn below them.
“If anyone had to do the trip, I was glad I was able to do it,” he says, having already been a veteran pilot in 1997. Though the trip was a difficult one emotionally, he remembers being amazed at the sense that everyone was going through this together.
“Everyone involved was being so helpful — they would say, please pass on our condolences to the Prince of Wales,” he recalls. “When we left at 10 o’clock in the morning there were 47 people, when we came back there were between four and six hundred press alone. And it made you realize just what a major thing it was for the world.”
“The coffin of the people’s princess was carried out of the royal aircraft,” he continues — then, ten minutes later, he was back in the sky, “flying the prince up to Balmoral to be with his sons.”
And curiously, the pilot remembers the senior royal coming up to the front of the plane to speak to him during this journey, but can’t remember a word they wound up saying. He remembers seeing all the people as they landed, Diana’s coffin coming out, and being back in the sky moments later, as though it passed in seconds. But to this day, he can’t remember a word the Prince of Wales said to him on that flight.
“His royal highness came up front and apparently we spoke for four minutes,” he says, per the other flight staff.
But it seems even Laurie got a bit overwhelmed by emotion at some point during that day, and it’s not hard to imagine why.