Capt Eric Brown delivering an after dinner speech at the Royal Aeronautical Society's HQ in 2009.

Lieutenant Commander Richard Gearing MRAeS Royal Navy looks back at the life of Royal Aeronautical Society Past President, and arguably Britain’s greatest pilot, Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown.

It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown. An indomitable Scot whose achievements and support to the aerospace world continued for decades after he retired from the Royal Navy, it was hard to imagine a time without him. Indeed, despite being in his 90s he could give a talk with a clarity of mind that would have been the envy of any public speaker decades his junior.

Early Years

Born in Leigh, Scotland, in 1919, Brown’s first experience of flying was when he was ten years old, when his father (a former member of the Royal Flying Corps) took him up in a Gloster biplane. However, it was to be an experience in Berlin in 1936, during the period of the Olympics, that proved most influential on his decision to pursue a career in aviation. Most significant was meeting the WW1 German Fighter Ace, Ernst Udet. Udet took Brown for a flight in a Bucker Jungman trainer and Brown was instantly taken by the experience. As Brown later revealed in interviews, Udet asked two things of him – to learn to fly and to learn German. Within two years Brown had done both.

Indeed it was as a result of his studies in German, that Brown found himself in Germany at the outbreak of WW2 on a six-month placement. Early on the morning of 3 September 1939, the SS took Brown into custody on account of the declaration of war by the United Kingdom. As Brown recounted later in an interview, this was not strictly correct, as the War would not commence until 1100 but he ‘wasn’t in a strong position to argue!’. Fortunately, the Germans only held Brown for three days before driving him to the Swiss border and releasing him.

Military Career

On his return to the United Kingdom, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and trained as a fighter pilot in the Fleet Air Arm. He was assigned to 802 Naval Air Squadron, then equipped with the Grumman Martlet (the British variant of the Grumman Wildcat). Brown once said that ‘I can vouch as a matter of personal experience, this Grumman fighter was one of the finest shipboard aeroplanes ever created’.

802 Naval Air Squadron was embarked in HMS Audacity. The ship was a former cargo vessel converted to an escort carrier – a wartime expediency to counter the so-called ‘Mid Atlantic Gap’ in defending convoys from U-boat attack. However, HMS Audacity was used to escort convoy to and from Gibraltar, where the greatest perceived threat was from the air in the form of German long-range Focke-Wulf Fw200 Condors. Brown noted the difficulty of attacking this heavily-armed type but nonetheless shot down two of these aircraft during his time with 802 Naval Air Squadron. This contributed to his subsequent award of the Distinguished Service Cross in March 1942.

However, his time with 802 Naval Air Squadron was to be cut short when HMS Audacity was torpedoed by U-751 on 21 December 1941. Brown managed to take to the water before the ship went down and tied himself to 23 other survivors. However, as hypothermia took hold, many were lost to drowning, with only Brown and one other surviving to be rescued.

Becoming a Test Pilot

When he arrived back in Great Britain, he moved to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough. Unbeknown to him the Commanding Officer of HMS Audacity had noted his flair for aircraft carrier work and had advised the Admiralty accordingly. This was the beginning of his career as a test pilot – the role for which he would subsequently be so widely known. During this first stint with the RAE he was involved in intensive trials to validate the configurations for carrier decks for a wide range of aircraft types. These trials contributed significantly to his, still current, world record for the most number of carrier deck landings performed by any pilot at 2,407 landings.

Brown subsequently interspersed operational tours with further periods at RAE. These included a secondment to the Royal Canadian Air Force flying fighter escort missions to United Army Air Forces B-17 Flying Fortresses and fighter defence of Great Britain, including against German V-1 flying bombs.

In March 1944 he landed a de Havilland Sea Mosquito (a navalised variant of the Moquito with folding wings, arrestor gear and a revised undercarriage) on HMS Indefatigable, the first time a twin-engined aircraft had landed on an aircraft carrier. With a maximum landing speed of 86 knots on the carrier and a stall speed of the Sea Mosquito being 110 knots, it was thought this feat would be impossible to achieve. Brown later stated that the Director of the RAE at the time had said to him after this event that ‘frankly I didn’t think I’d ever see you again’. It was at this point that he was promoted and became the Chief Naval Test Pilot at Farnborough. In May 1944 he was appointed to Membership of the Order of the British Empire ‘for outstanding enterprise and skill in piloting aircraft during hazardous aircraft trials’.

Utilising foreign language skills

With the advance of the Allied armies into Germany, Brown’s German linguistic skills were once again in demand. The Allies had liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945 and Brown was requested to interview the Camp Commandant (Josef Kramer) and the Warden of the Women’s Section (Irma Grese). Of the latter, Brown stated that ‘cruelty seemed to be a second part of her nature - she gave me an overpowering sense of evil’. Both Kramer and Grese were subsequently tried and executed.

Acquiring and studying advanced German aircraft technology before it was destroyed or captured by the Soviet Union was a pressing concern for the Allies. Brown flew a large range of German types, including all three jet-powered aircraft to see frontline service – the Messerschmitt Me262, the Arado Ar234 and the Heinkel He162. Brown was also believed to be the only Allied pilot to fly the Messerschmitt Me163 Komet rocket-powered interceptor under power. Known as extremely dangerous to fly on account of the volatility of the rocket fuel, Brown once stated that ‘if you landed with as much as a half-a-cupful of fuel, the impact of landing would explode the whole thing’.

To aid in this work, Brown also interviewed a number of leading figures in the German aerospace industry, including Wernher von Braun, Willy Messerschmitt and Dr Ernst Heinkel. Most famous perhaps, however, was his interview with Hermann Goering, who was then being held at Nuremburg.

Capt Brown makes the first carrier landing of a jet-powered aircraft, the second prototype de Havilland Vampire, on 3 December 1945.

In December 1945 he made the first landing of a jet aircraft on a carrier, when he landed a de Havilland Sea Vampire on the aircraft carrier HMS Ocean.

Post-War Career

After the war, Brown was part of the High Speed Flight, which was responsible for leading British efforts to study the effects of operating aircraft at, near and beyond the sound barrier. Indeed, but for the cancellation of the Miles M52 project in 1946, many expected that Brown might be the first man to fly supersonic, an accolade subsequently achieved by the American Chuck Yeager in the Bell X-1.

Flight testing was a dangerous business. Without the benefits of modern design techniques or simulators, test pilot losses were frequent. Following the death of de Havilland’s Chief Test Pilot, Geoffrey de Havilland, Jr in a de Havilland DH108, Brown flew tests to try and ascertain what caused the crash. High altitude testing did not reveal any abnormality. However, in a dive from 4,000ft, a high-g oscillation of approximately 3 Hertz occurred. Before he lost consciousness, Brown pulled back on both the control column and throttle together and the oscillation quickly disappeared. Brown’s deduction was that de Havilland’s head had violently struck the canopy and broken his neck. Brown believed he had been spared due to his shorter stature. Indeed, he put down this and his methodical approach to flight testing as the two main reasons he survived his career as a test pilot.

In the 1950s, Brown was seconded to Patuxent, Maryland, the home of the United States Naval Test Pilot School. While in America he demonstrated a number of aircraft carrier developments that had been pioneered in the Royal Navy, including the steam catapult and the angled flight deck.

In 1957 he returned to Germany once again, this time as the Chief of the British Naval Mission. His principal role was to re-establish the Marineflieger (the German Naval Air Arm), which included the subsequent sale of a number of British types, including Hawker Sea Hawks and Fairey Gannets to the German Navy.

Appointed a Naval Aide to Camp to Queen Elizabeth II in 1969, his last appointment in the Royal Navy, in the rank of Captain, was as the Commanding Officer of HMS Fulmar (Royal Naval Air Station Lossiemouth). He retired from the Royal Navy in 1970 and he was promoted to Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the same year.

Eric visited the RAeS Publications Department in 2004 to evaluate a flight simulator of WW2 aircraft.

Supporting the Royal Aeronautical Society

He became the first and, so far, only Royal Navy officer to become the President of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1982. He retired from flying in 1994, an experience he initially likened to being like a ‘drug addict when he can no longer get his drugs’. However, he remained active in the aerospace community right up to the end of his life. In 2014, the Fleet Air Arm Branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society hosted the inaugural Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown annual named lecture in his honour. The Branch was delighted that Captain Brown could give the lecture himself, which he did to a packed crowd underneath the first British-built Concorde at the Fleet Air Am Museum at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton.

In 2010 Eric, centre, spent an evening with other test pilot legends. From left: Neil Armstrong, first man on the Moon; James Lovell, Commander, Apollo 13; Security Man; Eugene Cernan, last man on the Moon (Apollo 17); Capt Eric Brown; Wg Cdr Andy Green, driver of the first supersonic car, ThrustSSC; Security Man and Bob Gilliland, former Principal Test Pilot on the SR-71 at the Lockheed Skunk Works.

The 1940-1950s were a time of great development in aerospace, spurred on by WW2. This presented Brown with the unique opportunity to fly many different types. Today, in a world where new unique aircraft types only come along every decade or so, it seems unlikely that his record of flying 487 aircraft types will ever be broken. But the numbers belie the true qualities of this man – his willingness to risk his life again and again to advance the art and science of aeronautics will be his true legacy. As he once stated, ‘one of the most attractive aspects of flying is taking on danger and winning’. I can think of no better epitaph.

Captain Eric Melrose Brown CBE DSC AFC HonFRAeS Royal Navy died on 21 February 2016.

22 February 2016