Prince William in Afghanistan
Cpl. Ian Houlding, MOD/AP
has opted for a full-time military career and is to train to become a pilot in the Royal Air Force's search and rescue teams, his office announced Monday.
"The time I spent with the RAF earlier this year made me realize how much I love flying," William, 26, said in a statement. "Joining Search and Rescue is a perfect opportunity for me to serve in the Forces operationally, while contributing to a vital part of the country's Emergency Services."
His training is 18 months long, starting in January 2009 and concluding by summer 2010 when he will embark on a tour of duty typically lasting up to three years.
William also expressed a desire to "build on the experience and training I have received" and see action in the armed forces – something his brother Prince Harry
, who turned 24 Sept. 15, was able to experience in Afghanistan
The announcement is a departure from what was thought to be the likely plans for the prince. It was believed that he would leave the military at the end of this year and spend more time on royal duties and charitable work.
His office say that some of that work – a preparation for his future role as a head of state – has been put on the "back burner" for now. He will continue to do some other public engagements and continue his role in his chosen charities, palace insiders tell PEOPLE.
A palace source added, "The prince himself feels that part of the preparation for his future role is to experience something fulltime in an area in which he has gained expertise. This still fits broadly within that."
There will also likely be heightened speculation about whether or not this means he will delay getting married to Kate Middleton, his girlfriend of six years. The couple has recently enjoyed a vacation together in the Caribbean
. "We don't comment on personal relationships," a spokesman said.
Those in the palace say that his father Prince Charles is "delighted" about William's decision.
With reporting by PETE NORMAN RELATED GALLERY: Get your fix of Prince William! See all 20 of his PEOPLE covers! RELATED ARTICLE:
Prince Harry returns from a secret deployment in Afghanistan