Eric 'Winkle' Brown: Celebrated British pilot dies, aged 97
The Royal Navy's most decorated pilot, Capt Eric "Winkle" Brown, has died at the age of 97.
Capt Brown also held the world record for flying the greatest number of different types of aircraft - 487.
During World War Two, Capt Brown, who was born in Leith in 1919, flew fighter aircraft and witnessed the liberation of Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
The pilot, who had been appointed MBE, OBE and CBE, died at East Surrey Hospital after a short illness.
A statement released by his family said: "It is with deep regret that the passing of Captain Eric Melrose Brown CBE DSC AFC is announced.
"Eric was the most decorated pilot of the Fleet Air Arm in which service he was universally known as 'Winkle' on account of his diminutive stature.
"He also held three absolute Guinness World Records, including for the number of aircraft carrier deck landings and types of aeroplane flown."
Capt Brown was educated at Edinburgh's Royal High School, before studying at the University of Edinburgh, where he learned to fly.
He had caught the bug for flying at the age of eight when his father, a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps during World War One, took him up in a bi-plane.
"There was no second seat, but I sat on his lap and he let me handle the stick," he told the BBC in 2014.
"It was exhilarating. You saw the earth from a completely different standpoint."
He retired from the Royal Navy in 1970 but became the director general of the British Helicopter Advisory Board and later the president of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1982.
- Flew 487 different types of aircraft, a world record that is unlikely ever to be matched
- Piloted 2,407 aircraft carrier landings
- Appointed MBE, OBE and CBE
- Survived 11 plane crashes and the sinking of HMS Audacity in 1941
- Met Churchill and King George VI numerous times
- Was at the liberation of Bergen Belsen
- Interrogated some of the leading Nazis after the war, including Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Goering and Belsen's chief guards Josef Kramer and Irma Grese
Capt Brown wrote numerous books of his own and forewords for other authors on the theme of aviation, before and after his retirement.
In March 2015 a bronze bust of him was unveiled at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Somerset.
At his 97th birthday celebration in London on 27 January he was joined by more than 100 pilots, including the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas.
In 2014 , the war veteran was picked as the subject for the 3,000th edition of Desert Island Discs, during which he was described by presenter Kirsty Young as a "real life hero" and a "remarkable, dare-devil".
"When you read through his life story, it makes James Bond seem like a bit of a slacker," she said.
Captain Winkle Brown, who has died aged 97, flew 487 different types of aircraft, made 2,407 decklandings at sea and 2,721 catapult launches, world records unlikely ever to be broken. Brown flew every major combat aircraft of the Second World War including gliders, fighters, bombers, airliners, amphibians, flying boats and helicopters, and his contribution to aviation research covered transonic flight, assessment of German jets and rocket aircraft, rotary wing flight, and the first carrier decklanding of a jet aircraft.
Eric Melrose Brown was born on January 21, 1919 in Edinburgh where he attended the Royal High and excelled in the classroom and, despite his pint size, on the sports field. His father was a Royal Scots who transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and then to the RAF when it was formed.
In 1936 Brown's father took him to the Olympics in Berlin, where, they met Herman Göring and Ernst Udet, both First World War fighter aces. Udet took young Brown flying in a two-seat Bucker Jungmann from Halle airfield and, after throwing the aircraft around the skies, declared that Brown had the temperament of a fighter pilot and must learn to fly. In 1938 Brown again visited Germany, where he witnessed a Focke-Wulf 61 helicopter being flown by the aviatrix Hanna Reitsch. Brown was a student teacher at Schule Schloss Salem in Germany when he was woken one morning in 1939 to be told "Our countries are at war,” was arrested by the SS and escorted to the Swiss border. He was allowed to keep his MG Magnette by an SS officer who told him “We have no spares for it.”
He had learned to fly in the University Air Squadron and on reaching Britain he volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm. His first operational appointment was in 802 Naval Air Squadron, flying the Grumman Martlet from the escort carrier Audacity, providing fighter protection to North Atlantic convoys. He was twice involved when his squadron shot several German long-range bombers, and was awarded the DSC for his bravery and skill in action against enemy aircraft and in the protection of a convoy against heavy and sustained air attacks. Audacity was torpedoed and sunk in December 1941 when Brown was one of only two survivors among the aircrew.
Though not a formally qualified test pilot, Brown’s flying ability was so outstanding that he was sent to the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough to trial the newly-navalised versions of the Hurricane and Spitfire. He also trialled the landing arrangements in new carriers, suffering a rare mishap when in September 1943 he crashed a Fairey Firefly on the deck of the carrier Pretoria Castle, hit the crash barrier, sheared off the undercarriage and shredded the propeller, but he was unhurt. By December 1943 he had already clocked up some 1,500 deck landings on 22 ships. In 1944 Brown was appointed MBE for outstanding enterprise and skill in piloting aircraft during hazardous aircraft trials.
Between 1944 and 1950 Brown was successively chief naval test pilot at Royal Aircraft Establishment, commanding officer Enemy Aircraft Flight, and commanding officer Aerodynamics Flight, the zenith of experimental test flying. In the Enemy Aircraft Flight he renewed his prewar acquaintanceship with Germany, and he pithily observed the characters of those he met: Werner von Braun and Hellmuth Walter (impressive), Raeder (very mellow), Dönitz (cold fish), and Göring (quite charismatic), Udet (second only to Richthofen in flying ability but out of his depth as head of a technical department), and Hannah Reitsch (complex and a personal follower of Hitler). Josef Kramer and Irma Grese, the commandant of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and his assistant, were "Two more loathsome creatures it is hard to imagine" and Grese "The worst human being I have ever met."
He summed aircraft in the same way: the captured German Me 163 rocket plane was “suicidally dangerous”, and the Me 262 jet was “the most formidable aircraft of the war.” Among British aircraft the twin-engined Hornet was “the hotrod child,” the de Hallivand 108 a killer, and the Seafire IIB was simply the best.
Brown was responsible for important ‘firsts’ in carrier aviation: including the first carrier landing using an aircraft equipped with a tricycle undercarriage, which he thought one of the greatest advances in naval aviation, during trials in the carrier Pretoria Castle on 4 April 1945; the first landing of a jet aircraft on a carrier, a de Havilland Sea Vampire on the carrier Ocean on 3 December 1945; and in 1948 Brown was awarded the Boyd Trophy, for the finest feat of aviation during the previous year, was awarded to him personally for his work with trials for the rubber deck landing system.
However the Admiralty ignored his report to the effect that only pilots of exceptional skill - like himself - would be able to land jets at sea, and ordered new trials which showed that others could emulate his performance.
Only in 1949 was Temporary Acting Lieutenant Commander RNVR (Air) Brown granted a permanent commission in the Royal Navy: that year Brown also suffered one of his rare accidents when a prototype jet-powered flying-boat fighter, known inaffectionately (sic) as the Squirt, struck flotsam in the Solent and sank beneath him.
In the 1950s during the Korean War, Brown was lent to the US Naval Test Center at Patuxent River, Florida where he introduced the US Navy to the then new, British concept of the steam catapult and the angled flightdeck. It was during this period that he achieved a very large proportion of his world record number of land-ons and take-offs. The first catapult assisted take-off was while the carrier Perseus was still alongside: the wind on the day being so slight that the British decided that, as the steam catapult was capable of launching an aircraft without any wind, they would risk their pilot if the Americans would risk their aircraft. It was during this period that he logged a very large number of deck take-offs and landings.
In 1954 Brown was given command of 804 Naval Air Squadron flying the Sea Hawk fighter-bomber and in 1957 he returned to Germany to train up the new German naval air arm to NATO standards, and was asked to help the Focke-Wulf company as a test pilot.
Promoted to captain in 1957, Brown served in the Admiralty as Deputy Director Naval Air Warfare, where he played a key role in the development of CVA01, a new large carrier which was eventually cancelled by the then Labour government. He thought Denis Healey was personally motivated to destroy the Fleet Air Arm because he wanted to save money and challenged Healey at a briefing in the Ministry of Defence, “Are you still a Communist?”
He also helped obtain the MacDonald Douglas Phantom IV fighter and Blackburn Buccaneer low-level bomber for the Fleet Air Arm.
He served as naval attaché in Bonn 1965-67 and commanded the RN Air Station Lossiemouth 1967-70, but Brown’s asperity and his single-minded advocacy of naval aviation meant there was no room for him on the flag list and he retired in 1970 when he was appointed CBE.
Brown became chief executive of the British Helicopter Advisory Board where he thought his achievements were overlooked compared to his work as a test pilot. His vision included a nationwide network of heliports of which the first was at Blackfriars, and he promoted the air ambulance and police helicopter services, as well as advocating the acquisition of all-weather helicopters and of simulators, and he helped found the European Helicopter Association.
He received the King’s commendation for valuable service in the air and the Air Force Cross, was president of the Royal Aeronautical Society, honorary fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, a Master Pilot of Russia, and was inducted into the USN’s carrier test pilot hall of honor.
Brown enjoyed a third career as aviation author and lecturer and in his 90s was still a much sought after lecturer on cruise liners. In 1962 he had been ordered to write a short autobiography that would help recruitment for the Fleet Air Arm, and in 2006 this was revised and published “free of petty censorship and security concerns,” he claimed, as Wings on My Sleeve . Amongst his many other books and articles he also wrote Wings of the Luftwaffe (2002) which sold over 100,000 copies.
Brown reckoned few among his equals, recognising only Adolf Galland, Frank Whittle and Denis Campbell (inventor of the angled flight deck for aircraft carriers) as having contributed almost as much as him to the advance of aviation. His diminutive size earned him his nickname, Winkle, which he claimed, naturally devolved on him after the death in action in 1942 of Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde VC DSO.
He retained his Scots burr and his sense of purpose throughout his life, answered hundreds of letters by hand, spurned computers, and lived for 30 years at Crawley under the Gatwick flight path. His professional achievements, which will probably never be exceeded, were marred by a personal froideur and jealousy of others with more operational experience.
Brown who died on February 21 2016 married Evelyn ‘Lynn’ Macrory in 1942, who predeceased him in 1998 and is survived by their son, and his companion Jean.