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Queen's at the heart of the party as Britain kicks off Platinum Jubilee celebrations

“Seventy years on the throne — nobody else has ever done that before, so it does feel very historic,” said one spectator among the thousands lining London's streets Thursday.

LONDON — Royal Air Force planes screaming through the skies, a military band on horseback, a ceremonial Irish wolfhound named Seamus.

Queen Elizabeth II's Platinum Jubilee kicked off Thursday with all the grandeur one would expect from this 1,000-year-old institution. But despite the lavish royal pageantry, there was only one star of the show for the flag-waving crowds lining the streets of the British capital on this warm June day.

There were doubts about how much of the country's four-day celebration its 96-year-old queen would manage to attend. On Thursday, she was greeted with rapturous cheers and applause as she made two smiling appearances on the famed Buckingham Palace balcony.

“I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly patriotic, but I do love the queen,” said Rob Gemson, 31, an information technology manager from Manchester, a city in northwest England, who joined thousands of spectators watching the day's proceedings on big screens in a nearby park. “Seventy years on the throne — nobody else has ever done that before, so it does feel very historic.”

Even for Britons usually ambivalent about the royals, many see this as an occasion to enjoy getting through the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Others are mindful of the queen's age and her recent health troubles — acutely aware there will be a finite number of these events left to celebrate the only monarch most have ever known.

And celebrate they did.

Thousands bearing Union Jack hats and masks of the queen gathered along the Mall, the wide avenue that links Buckingham Palace to the city, with die-hard royalists camping out days before to secure their spots.

The sheer size of the crowds meant that many missed the queen’s two brief appearances. “She is 96, we should cut her a bit of slack,” said Paul Clifton, a radiographer from Staffordshire in England, as he stood near Buckingham Palace in a Union Jack-themed suit and black top hat. “It’s just so busy. This is the busiest we have seen it in years.”

Clifton, 35, and his friend Louise D’Costa, who lives in London, arrived early and managed to get a front-row spot along the parade route. They came for the “pomp and ceremony” of it all, he said, but also to enjoy the atmosphere of people from around the country and the world able to come together after two difficult years.

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Crowds packed central London for a glimpse of the royal family as they appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.Aaron Chown / Pool via AP

While some traveled all the way from the United States, Canada and elsewhere to honor the queen, messages also poured in from world leaders and other figures, including Pope Francis. President Joe Biden paid tribute to the queen's “selfless devotion and service,” while former President Barack Obama noted her “grace and generosity” and said her life had been a “gift” not just to the United Kingdom, but also to the world.

Thursday is the start of a long weekend and public holiday to celebrate the queen’s 70-year reign.

After dark, more than 1,500 beacons will be lighted across Britain and overseas to cap the opening day of events. On Friday, there will be a service of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Saturday will see a concert at the palace, and Sunday will feature nationwide street parties before the events close with the Platinum Jubilee Pageant, a four-part festival of celebrity-packed music and theater.

In a break with tradition, the jubilee began with younger royal generations taking center stage.

First, Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and her three children, Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis, were whisked past the crowds in a horse-drawn carriage. Then, Prince Charles, Prince William and Princess Anne arrived on horseback to inspect the regiments involved in Trooping the Color, a military parade that has been held for more than 260 years to mark the monarch’s ceremonial summer birthday.

When the queen finally did appear, she seemed to take spectators and even broadcasters by surprise with an understated entrance onto the Buckingham Palace balcony.

She came out wearing a light blue hat and coat adorned with a brooch, as well as her now ever-present walking stick, necessary because of her "episodic mobility problems," according to the palace. The queen, later reappeared with a pair of sunglasses, joined on the balcony by Charles, his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, William and Kate and their three children — the youngest of whom stole a little of the limelight for himself.

They weren't the only ones to watch the flypast by the Royal Air Force.

Communities across London and southeast England felt their houses shake as a line of helicopters, World War II-era Spitfires and high-tech jets tore low under the fluffy summer clouds — the display culminating in a red, white and blue vapor trail and fighter jets spelling out a large “70” over the capital.

It was one of many unions of the past, present and future employed to mark an occasion that also offered a chance for the country to take stock.

Queen Jubilee flypast
The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows, performed a special flypast over the Buckingham Palace balcony in London on Thursday.Paul Ellis / WPA Pool via Getty Images

"When we saw the queen coming out on the balcony, it was the same as it's always been, yet really, really different," royal commentator Daisy McAndrew told NBC News. "This was a new Trooping the Color, which showed her increasing age," she said, "but there was still continuity, and I thought it was a really clever way that they changed the event to suit her."

Not everyone was on the balcony, however. Absent was the queen's grandson Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, as well as Charles' brother Prince Andrew — a reminder of the scandals that had buffeted the royals in the buildup to this celebration of its much-loved figurehead.

In a written message to mark the occasion, the queen urged her country to "look to the future with confidence and enthusiasm.”

On Thursday, that enthusiasm was centered squarely on her.

“We absolutely love the queen,” said Jenny Parris, 50, who was with her sister, Carol, who had flown in from South Africa just for the occasion. Both were wearing rubber masks of the queen's face and carrying around a toy corgi, the queen's favorite dog breed.

"This is our history, this is part of our national pride," Parris added. "A platinum jubilee is something that the next few generations won’t see in their lifetimes.”