Dense fog curled around the snowcapped Welsh mountains and fierce winds rattled the cockpit of the military rescue helicopter. At the controls, plotting a daring path to a stranded heart attack victim, was a newly engaged air force co-pilot.
Prince William _ or Flight Lt. Wales, as he is known to his Royal Air Force colleagues _ guided his Sea King aircraft through the gloom, swooping low so hiker Greg Watkins could be winched from the hillside and raced to a hospital.
The mission last November _ two days after the prince and Kate Middleton announced plans to marry _ is typical of the often-risky rescues performed by the king-to-be in his unlikely day job: patrolling Britain's coast with a military search squadron.
"The weather was particularly severe on that particular day, with the visibility reduced down to the ground. The crew was looking to Flight Lt. Wales _ to William _ to navigate us up the side of the mountain," said Sgt. Keith Best, a paramedic and winchman on William's team.
"Time really was critical, and he did his job impeccably well," said Best. "The guy is still alive because of the efforts of Flight Lt. Wales."
Britain's monarchy has an enduring connection to the armed forces _ William is part of the fourth successive generation to have served as a pilot. His grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, is the military's ceremonial chief and joined the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service during World War II, reaching the rank of junior commander and training as a driver.
Yet the reality of modern conflicts _ complete with battlefield kidnappings documented in grisly Internet videos _ means that William's ambitions of serving on the frontline will almost certainly be unfulfilled.
The 28-year-old has repeatedly aired his frustration that military chiefs have barred him from serving in Afghanistan, dismissing as "hyped up" the belief that _ as a future king _ he would be a prime target for insurgents.
"It's just a pity I didn't get to Afghanistan," William said last year. "I still have hope and faith and a real determination to go out there."
The last monarch to eyeball the enemy in conflict was his great-grandfather King George VI, who fought in the Battle of Jutland during World War I. George, however, was not destined for the throne, only later thrust into the role following his elder brother Edward's abdication.
"While Prince William, I know, would love to have had the opportunity to serve in Afghanistan, there is no doubt that there are risks that surface out there," Gen. David Richards, the head of the British military, said at the time.
Though Prince William did make a brief stop in 2008 at an air base in Kandahar, it is younger brother Prince Harry, third in line to the throne, who has joined British personnel in clashes against the Taliban.
Harry served a 10-week tour in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province as a battlefield air controller, but was abruptly removed in February 2008 after a media blackout was breached and the prince's safety was judged to be in jeopardy. A year earlier, Harry had abandoned plans to fight in Iraq after British intelligence learned of threats by militants to kill him.
While Harry is expected to return to Afghanistan later this year _ this time at the controls of an Apache attack helicopter, William will be guiding rescue sorties from RAF Valley, his base in a remote corner of northern Wales.
"It's great to get to go out to save somebody's life hopefully, or at least make a difference to someone," William said earlier this month as he showed the queen around the station on the island of Anglesey.
William, second-in-line to the British throne, carried out his first mission in October, plucking a stricken worker from a gas rig off the coast of northwestern England.
"He is very down to earth, he is very grounded, and he is a capable pilot," said William's commanding officer, Squadron Leader Iain Wright. "Thus far he is showing very good potential."
Wright said that, up to now, he hasn't had cause to wag a finger at William, but does expect the man who will one day be known as His Majesty to show deference when addressing senior ranks.
"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.
William's father Prince Charles served with the Royal Navy _ briefly commanding a minehunter, and also qualified as a jet pilot. During a 22-year naval career, William's uncle, the Duke of York, flew combat missions during the 1982 Falklands war with Argentina over Britain's disputed South Atlantic colony.
The Duke of Edinburgh, William's grandfather, served for more than a decade in the Royal Navy _ including during World War II.
Like his grandfather, William's military career is likely to be curtailed by regal duties. Philip left active service in 1952 when the queen took her throne, and most observers suspect the prince will hang up his pilot's helmet when Charles becomes king _ if not earlier.
Before then, William will serve about two-and-a-half more years as a rescue pilot in Anglesey, allowing the royal newlyweds to spend the first months of their marriage in a discreet corner of Britain. The couple rent a whitewashed farmhouse close to a private beach, and away from snooping camera lenses.
"The wives are always the unsung heroes," said Best. "The work that we do, sometimes, isn't very nice, and we rely on our support networks, and on the firm base of our families at home."
Middleton last month made a low-key visit to see William and his workmates at their base, and 27 colleagues from his squadron will travel to London for the couple's April 29 wedding. Others have organized a street party on the base to mark the nuptials.
"We were hopeful, but we weren't banking on it, so when the envelope came through the door we were tickled pink," said Flight Lt. Thomas Bunn on receiving an invite.
Bunn said William is treated exactly like any other colleague, and the crew jokingly mocked the glossy Mario Testino photographs published to mark his engagement.
William's crew will attend the Westminster Abbey ceremony _ in dress uniform _ but not the Buckingham Palace receptions planned for later in the day.
Best said that, to his colleagues, the pilot prince is already showing the qualities that could make him a hugely popular king.
"He is a fantastic guy, has had a fantastic upbringing, he's a great person to work with and he really will be a fantastic ambassador for our country," he said.
(This version corrects Ian Wright to Iain Wright.)