Prince Charles at RAF Lakenheath in September, 1985.

Prince Charles at RAF Lakenheath in September, 1985. (J. King Cruger / ©Stars and Stripes)

RAF LAKENHEATH, England — Members of the American community at this F-111 base turned out in the thousands Thursday to welcome a visiting British aviator — the Prince of Wales.

Prince Charles was the first royal visitor to RAF Lakenheath since his sister, Princess Anne, visited the base's grammar school in 1970. He toured the base for four hours after landing at 10:30 a.m. aboard a red Wessex helicopter.

Prince Charles' visit came as the result of an invitation from Col. Sam. W. Westbrook III, commander of the 48th Tac Fighter Wing, who was aware of the prince's keen interest in aviation.

Upon arrival, Prince Charles was met by Westbrook, Maj. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney, 3rd Air Force commander; Squadron Leader Mike Sharpe, the base's RAF station commander, and Sir Joshua Rowley, the Lord Lieutenant of Suffolk. The prince was then whisked away in a motorcade to attend a briefing by Westbrook on the mission of the wing, the largest F-111 fighter-bomber unit in the Air Force.

Following the briefing, Prince Charles, who was accompanied on the visit only by his personal bodyguard, was driven to a vast hangar where he inspected two F-111s and viewed displays of the aircraft's Pave Tack laser guided weapons system and the Royal Air Force-operated Rapier missile system that helps provide anti-aircraft defense for the base as well as neighboring RAF Mildenhall.

The prince sat in the cockpit of an F-111 while Maj. Ed Hein, an F-111 pilot with the 494th Tac Fighter Sq, explained the aircraft to him. Hein said Prince Charles, who is helicopter pilot, appeared to feel right at home there.

"It's obvious from the questions he asked that he knows a lot about flying and basic employment characteristics," said Hein, a 36-year-old native of Savannah, N.Y. "He also was interested in how our terrain-following radar system is employed while flying at low altitude and high speeds and wanted to know if the training we do here is enough to keep us combat ready."

Tie prince then walked through the hangar, frequently pausing to hold short conversations there with military members and base employees.

The opportunity to meet the prince made the day for many in the welcoming crowd.

One of them, Monica Lattimore, a data processor from Cincinnati, said she was "dying slowly" from the thrill of meeting the prince.

"What did he say? I'm so excited, I forgot," she said.

After observing a fly-by of F-111s and meeting with air crews from each of the four fighter squadrons assigned at RAF Lakenheath, the prince came to the part of the visit he appeared to relish the most — a chance to meet many of the 1,500 American youngsters from elementary schools at RAF Lakenheath and nearby RAF Feltwell who lined a base road in hope of having a chance to see, if not meet, the future king of England.

As the prince's limousine came into view, the youngsters, aged 6 through 11, began chanting, "Please stop, please stop," and Prince Charles did. He left his car and walked down the road, crossing from side to side to shake their hands, autograph pictures for them and accept gifts presented to him and for delivery to his wife, Princess Diana, and sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.

The royal visit concluded with a reception in the officers' open mess where the prince met wing people of all ranks and their spouses before he departed the base by helicopter at 2:30 p.m.

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