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Prince William earns his RAF pilot wings

With his girlfriend enthusiastically supporting him, Prince William graduated from flying school, where he received his wings from father Prince Charles acting in his capacity as Air Chief Marshal.
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With his girlfriend enthusiastically supporting him, Prince William took a major step on Friday toward his goal of being a search and rescue helicopter pilot.

William, 27, graduated from the Defence Helicopter Flying School at Royal Air Force Shawbury, where he received his wings presented to him by his father Prince Charles, acting in his capacity as Air Chief Marshal.

Sitting among family and friends of the new pilots was William's longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton, 28. During the ceremony she rose to her feet to applaud as William took his place among the honorees. It was the last time the couple will be together before the prince heads off for a five-day tour of New Zealand and Australia, his first official overseas tour on behalf of his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth.

Middleton has been at her beau's other significant occasions during his military career — when he graduated from both flying school and from army college at Sandhurst.

Friday's honor followed a 12-month training course at Shawbury during which William, for a time, shared a house with his brother, Prince Harry, who was there to learn to fly for the Army Air Corps.

William, known as Flight Lieutenant Wales, completed the flying aspects of the course in December, including 80 hours of training on the Griffin HT1 helicopter. His training also included courses in advanced handling, night flying, emergency handling and tactical and formation flying. The royal will begin the search and rescue conversion course at RAF Valley in Wales in late January. If successful, he'll become a fully operational search and rescue pilot with one of the six UK-based Royal Air Force search and rescue forces later this year. He would then serve around three years as a pilot.

But first up, William is due in New Zealand to open the country's Supreme Court building Monday. The prince is using a week out of his annual leave to make the trip. His private secretary, Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, has said that William believes the tour will be a "highlight" of the year for him and is "longing" to visit New Zealand again. He last visited in 2005 where he watched the British and Irish Lions play rugby there.