Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, CBE, DSC, AFC, Hon FRAeS, RN (1919-2016)
Amongst the best test pilots produced by this country, the sheer variety, insurmountable records and timespan of his contributions to aviation stand in conspicuous opposition to his well-known nickname!
Eric Melrose Brown was born on 21 January 1919 in Edinburgh, his father Robert had served as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War and this undoubtedly served as an inspiration for Eric to follow. Indeed his father took him to see the 1936 Olympics and introduced him to his former adversaries, Ernst Udet and Hermann Göring, the former also nurturing him to learn to fly and speak German. Both skills would come to play a significant part in the roles he was selected for during and after the Second World War. On the outbreak of War in September 1939 he was in Germany as a teacher and fortunately for him and this Country, he was allowed to leave with his beloved MG sports car rather than being interred for the duration.
Returning to Britain he elected to join the Fleet Air Arm as the Royal Air Force had a shortage of places even though he had learnt to fly with a University Air Squadron. Amongst his first operational roles would be flying Grumman Martlets as part of 802 Naval Air Squadron from the deck of HMS Audacity. Awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery and skill in combating Luftwaffe Condor attacks on the vital North Atlantic convoys during 1941, the actual award being granted in the following year. It would in this theatre of operations that he survived the sinking of Audacity by U-751, west of Cape Finisterre on 21 December 1941.
Eric’s outstanding flying skills had not gone unnoticed nor his language skills, after a brief spell with the Royal Canadian Air Force he was posted to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in 1943. This posting saw him test flying captured German and Italian aircraft in southern Italy, remarkably without any prior training as a test pilot and led to a further appointment in experimental flying back at Farnborough. Again this involved captured Luftwaffe aircraft but evolved into test flying of the new Sea Hurricanes and Seafires and particularly around their operation from aircraft carriers. By the end of the year he had accumulated 1,500 deck landings on 22 different carriers, unsurprisingly there were a few crashes due to technical failures but he emerged unscathed. For the full story of the Seafire development please click here for an illustrated and personal insights, Eric described the Seafire IIB as ‘simply the best’.
In 1944, he was appointed Chief Naval Test Pilot and Commanding Officer of the Enemy Aircraft and Aerodynamics Flights at the Royal Aircraft Establishment which he held for the next six years and involved many notable achievements. In terms of aerodynamics he assisted the United States by undertaking compressibility tests to select the primary escort fighter, this involved diving aircraft at high speed to gauge their controllability at high subsonic speeds with the Mustang achieving 0.78 as the eventual winner. It should be noted that the Spitfire IX and XI achieved 0.86 and 0.92 respectfully, showing how advanced the wing design of the Spitfire was compared with later developed aircraft. Eric would also fly the first helicopters such as the Sikorsky R4-B Hoverfly on a ferry flight from Liverpool’s Speke to Farnborough in 1945, with the only instruction being pilots notes from America! The Miles M.52 project also came under his remit and had it not been cancelled it may well have been Eric and Britain that would have broken the sound barrier ahead of the Americans, Chuck Yeager and the Bell X-1. Survived the DH 108, and solved the reason behind the deaths of his fellow test pilots Geoffrey de Havilland and Stuart Muller-Rowland. Unsurprisingly he nicknamed the DH 108, the ‘killer’ as the violent longitudinal oscillations broke the necks of pilots before structurally breaking up at high speed.
Eric’s time with the Enemy Aircraft Flight would once again see him in Germany and using his linguistic skills to uncover the Country’s aviation developments and the crimes committed during the holocaust. The test flying of the most advanced jet and powered aircraft such as the Messerschmitt 163 and 262, with minimal training it required huge courage and skill but he carried out the vital assessments without harm and even ferried back to Britain certain aircraft types like the Arado Ar 234. Whilst in Germany he would also be called upon to assist in the interrogation of the leading members of the Nazi Party, technical designers and the commandants of Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, the latter group he described as ‘loathsome’ and ‘the worst human beings he had ever met’.
Naval aviation would once again become his primary concern from the end of the Second World War until his retirement from the Royal Navy, twenty five years later notching up many firsts and records. Eric made the first tricycle undercarriage carrier landing on HMS Pretoria Castle on 4 April 1945 using a Bell Airacobra, the use of this undercarriage arrangement greatly improved visibility on approach and consequently mitigated accidents. Later that year he performed the first ever carrier landing by a jet aircraft using a de Havilland Sea Vampire and HMS Ocean on 3 December 1945. Remarkably he wasn’t granted a permanent commission until 30 March 1949 and then only as a Lieutenant but his next promotion came quicker in April 1951, which rose him up to Lieutenant-Commander. In the early 1950s, he was seconded to the United States Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent for two years and had the opportunity to fly 36 types of helicopters. Showcasing British carrier inventions such as the steam catapult by flying a Grumman Panther from HMS Perseus whilst stationary in the Philadelphia Naval Yard at the start of 1952 and angled flight decks. The secondment also raised the number of carrier landings he made to a world record of 2,407. Appointed to the rank of Commander on 31 December 1953 ahead of his next flying role back in Britain.
Returning to Britain in 1954, he was appointed Commander (Air) of Royal Naval Air Station Brawdy in Pembrokeshire which mainly operated Hawker Sea Hawks whilst not embarked on aircraft carriers. During 1957, he became Chief of the British Naval Mission to Germany with the aim of re-establishing the military naval aviation force known as Marinefleiger, by training aircrew on the Sea Hawk and Fairey Gannet and integrating the force into NATO. Also assisted the Focke-Wulf as a temporary Chief Test Pilot during his stint with the British Naval Mission. Following his appointment as Deputy Director of Naval Air Warfare at the Admiralty from 1957, he was promoted to Captain on 31 December 1960 and stayed at the Admiralty until 1965. Due to his considerable experiences he was instrumental in the planning process for the subsequently abandoned new aircraft carrier CVA01 but was successful in the commissioning of the Blackburn Buccaneer and McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom for the Fleet Air Arm. Eric’s final appointments were Naval Attaché in the West German capital of Bonn between 1965 and 1967. Retired in 1970, having spent three years as Commander of Royal Naval Air Station Lossiemouth and had flown 487 aircraft types throughout his career.
Appointed the Director General of the British Helicopter Advisory Board after leaving the Royal Navy, he made a number of prophetic initiatives. Such as a national network of heliports, the use of helicopters by the emergency services, helicopters that could fly in all weathers, use of helicopter simulators and the creation of a European Helicopter Association. Largely thanks to his extensive notes he was also a successful aviation author with titles such as his autobiography Wings On My Sleeve; Wings Of The Luftwaffe: Flying German Aircraft Of World War II; Wings Of The Weird And Wonderful; Wings of the Navy; Duels In The Sky: World War II Naval Aircraft In Combat; Miles M.52: Gateway to Supersonic Flight and many aviation themed articles.
An overview of Eric’s awards include the Distinguished Service Cross (1942); Member of the Order of the British Empire (1944); Air Force Cross (1947); Boyd Trophy (1948); King's Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air (1949); Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1970); President of the Royal Aeronautical Society (1982-1983) and The Air League’s Founder’s Medal (2015).
Married Evelyn (Lynn) Macrory in 1942 and they had one son, his family home was destroyed by a V-1 missile in the summer 1944 which left his wife with concussion. Lynn died in 1998 and he lived in Copthorne up until his death with Jean his companion. Died on 21 February 2016 at East Surrey Hospital after a short illness.
For further details please see the BBC’s appropriately entitled documentary Britain's Greatest Pilot: The Extraordinary Story of Captain Winkle Brown.