On the 21st February 2016, the world lost a legendary aviator. At 97 years old, Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown RN was the most decorated pilot in the history of the British Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm and held three Guinness World Records. These included the most aircraft flown by a single person, totaling 487 and the highest number of aircraft carrier deck landings at a staggering 2,407!
Eric was born near Edinburgh, Scotland and soon found himself immersed in aviation when his father, a World War One Royal Flying Corps pilot, took him for a flight in a Gloster Gauntlet biplane at the age of eight. In 1936 his father took him to the Berlin Olympics where he met WWI fighter ace Ernst Udet at a social event involving members of the newly formed Luftwaffe. Udet took him up for a flight in a Bucker Jungmann, further cementing his love of flying. Brown would soon enroll at the University of Edinburgh, studying modern languages, including German and it was here that he received his first formal flying training at the university air unit.
In 1938, Udet invited Eric to Germany’s national automobile exhibition where he saw a demonstration flight of the Focke-Wulf Fw61 twin rotor helicopter by the soon to be infamous test pilot, Hanna Reitsch. Brown soon found himself back in Germany as an exchange teacher and was reunited with the now Major General Udet and Hanna Reitsch. It was here in September 1939 that Brown awoke to the sound of knocking at his door. On opening it, he was confronted by a woman who told him that Britain was now at war with Germany. He was soon arrested by the SS and held before being escorted to the Swiss border.
On return to Britain, Eric enlisted in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm. Following training he was posted to 802 Squadron, flying the Grumman Martlet (F4F Wildcat) providing North Atlantic Convoy fighter protection. For his skill and bravery during this period he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. However, this posting would come to an end on 21st December 1941, when his aircraft carrier HMS Audacity was torpedoed and sunk by a U-Boat. Brown was one of only two aircrew survivors.
Following this he was sent to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in Southern England to conduct test flights on the new Hawker Sea Hurricane and Supermarine Seafire (a naval Spitfire). In addition to this, he was tasked with testing aircraft carrier landing arrangements. By 1943 he had clocked up 1500 deck landings on 22 ships with very few mishaps.
A little later in 1943 Eric was seconded to the Royal Canadian Air Force training and flying bomber escort missions for USAAF B-17’s and later flew Spitfire fighter patrols with Fighter Command in the defense of Britain. By the end of 1943 he had resumed his role of test flying aircraft and was sent to Southern Italy to evaluate captured enemy aircraft. He was then assigned to the aerodynamics department at Farnborough where in his first month he flew 13 different aircraft types, including the venerable Focke-Wulf Fw190.
By 1944 the now Leiutenant Brown was promoted to Chief Naval Test Pilot and was given the task of looking at the feasibility of landing a twin engine aircraft on a carrier. On 25th March 1944 he became the first person to land a twin engine DeHavilland Mosquito on an aircraft carrier. He was also involved in high speed flight testing using the MK 9 Spitfire, which would be put into a dive to the transonic speed range, during which they reached Mach 0.86. It was during this time that General Jimmy Doolittle of the USAAF approached the Royal Aircraft Establishment for help with high speed dive control problems experienced by 8th Air Force P-38, P-47 and P-51 fighters in combat against German opposition aircraft. It was down to Brown and his collegues to fly these aircraft to their limit and find their maximum Mach numbers. It was their results which enabled General Doolittle to convince the top brass to use the P-51 over the P-38 and P-47 for fighter escort duties.
In February 1945 he flew his first helicopter, a Sikorsky R-4B, from an RAF station to Farnborough with no instrucction other than an operating handbook. Later, in April, he became the first person to land and take off from an aircraft carrier in a tricycle-undercarriage -equipped aircraft, the Bell Airacobra.
As the war drew to a close, due to the fact that he was a fluent German speaker, Brown was tasked with leading the team which would enter Germany to recover enemy aircraft technology. Carrying a personal authorization letter from Winston Churchill he was able to commandeer any German aircraft at will. Flying 4 out of every 5 days he managed to clock up time in an amazing 55 aircraft types.
However, there was a brief but dark period of time where he was requested to act as a translator for for the occupying officer at Bergen-Belson concentration camp. In this role, he assisted in the interrogation of the former camp commandant and his assistant. “Two more loathsome creatures it is hard to imagine,” he reportedly said as he described his encounters with them.
Whilst employed by the allied occupying forces he was also to conduct interviews with Hermann Goring, Willy Messerschmitt, Ernst Heinkel and Hanna Reitsch. On the subject of Reitsch, he admired her flight test work but was appalled by the “fanaticism she displayed in her attitude to Hitler,” which made his “blood run cold.” During this time he flew both the Messerschmitt Me-262 and Heinkel He-162 jet aircraft and even piloted the Me-163 rocket powered fighter. He is believed to be the only allied pilot to do so and described the experience as “like being in charge of a runaway train.”
Eric’s post war career continued in flight testing, pushing the limits of jet propelled aircraft and seeking a way through the elusive sound barrier. During this time, he became the first person to land a jet aircraft on an aircraft carrier in a de Havilland Sea Vampire and tested early versions of a jet powered flying boat.
In the 1950’s, as the Korean war raged, Brown was sent on a 2 year exchange with the United States Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent, Maryland. Here he flew a wide variety of aircraft, including the F-86 Sabre in which he broke the sound barrier and even buzzed the Admirals house as part of a bet!
The admiral ended up inviting Brown to become his regular bowling partner so that he could keep an eye on him. It was here that the British chose to demonstrate their steam catapult developed for carrier launches to the US brass. Lieutenant Commander Brown was chosen as the pilot and the US Navy supplied the F-9F Panther for the demonstration. But with tail winds forecasted, the test seemed to be in jeopardy. Without a word to Eric, a British official told the delegation “we’ll risk the pilot, if you’ll risk the aircraft!” The test was a success and the rest is history.
By 1954 Brown had been promoted to Commander and was placed in charge of a Naval Air Station in Wales. In 1957 he returned to Germany to re-establish German Naval Aviation. This he accomplished with typical success, ensuring that Marineflieger units were fully established within NATO.
In the 1960’s he was promoted to Captain and took command of another Naval Air Station, until 1970 when he was appointed Naval Aide de Camp to Queen Elizabeth II. He retired from active service in late 1970 but, before doing so, was involved in a fitting aerial incident. During a flight in poor weather over Scotland Brown encountered and engine fault at 800 feet over deep snow. He was unable to pick out the ground features adequately for landing but did notice a wire fence. Somehow he managed to hook the fence with his tail skid and cone to an arrested stop with all lives on board intact. Captain Brown was awarded the Air Force Cross, MBE and CBE during his career, but I think it is his service to the world of aviation which distinguishes him most. I think the following quote describes his love for flying best.
“On the jet side I was a great admirer of the F-86 Sabre, but in particular, the Model E (F-86E) which had the flying tail, and this gave me what I call the ‘perfect harmony of control’. If a pilot has this perfect harmony of control you feel you’re part of the aeroplane and you’re bonded with it really. You’ve got into it and the aeroplane welcomes you and says ‘thank God you’ve come, you’re part of me anyway’ and to fly like that is a sheer delight.”
Fair winds Captain Brown.
(Featured photo courtesy of peoplesmosquito.org.uk)