His fellow fliers called Eric Brown “Winkle”; apparently this was because he was so short. There wasn’t anything diminutive, however, about Brown’s career as a pilot. Brown died on the weekend at the age of 97, after a short illness. During his flying career, he flew 487 different types of aircraft and many of them as a test pilot – when the designs were still largely experimental and potentially dangerous.
As a pilot for the British Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm, he earned several medals, including the Distinguished Service Cross and Air Force Cross – some of the highest possible honours. Brown led a life marked by both his fearless attitude and quick thinking.
Brown's remarkable flying career is unlikely to ever be equalled (Credit: Getty Images)
BBC Radio 4 presenter Kirsty Young, who featured Brown on the 3,000th episode of the Desert Island Discs programme, said of him, “When you read through his life story, it makes James Bond seem like a bit of a slacker.”
Here, then, are seven excerpts from that life story that could, indeed, raise 007’s eyebrows and serve as a reminder that the aviation community is unlikely to see his like again.
1. The first jet aircraft landing on a carrier
Landing a plane on an aircraft carrier is notoriously difficult, thanks to the small size of the landing deck and lack of reference points in the landscape. Brown was the first person to do it in a jet. He made the landing on 3 December 1945 in a de Havilland Sea Vampire. The very plane he flew is now preserved at the Fleet Air Arm museum in Yeovil in the west of England. Brown made 2,407 carrier landings in total – a Guinness World Record that no-one has ever come close to breaking.
2. Tested experimental Nazi planes
During the war, the Nazis developed a variety of experimental aircraft – including several powered by jets and one by a rocket. Jets get the oxygen they need for propulsion from outside the engine – rockets carry oxygen on board. Brown was one of the only non-German pilots to make extensive test-flights in planes like the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, the world’s only rocket-powered plane to enter operational service. Brown also tested all three of the Nazi’s more conventionally jet-powered warplanes too and made notes on their safety. The tiny, wood-constructed Heinkel He 162, for example was, he later wrote, a “first class combat aircraft”.
Brown also performed a test-flight in the only rocket-powered war plane to enter service - the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet (Credit: Ad Meskens/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)
3. Survived the sinking of HMS Audacity
Brown was a member of the 802 squadron aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Audacity when the ship was torpedoed on 21 December 1941. Brown was one of only two survivors from the carrier’s flight crew; for this he thanked the buoyancy of his larger “Mae West” life jacket. Some other squadron members didn’t have the same type of float and suffered from hypothermia in the cold waters of the Atlantic. It was partly for his service on board Audacity that Brown was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
4. A fluent German speaker who interrogated Himmler and Goering
In 1939, Brown was an exchange student at Schule Schloss Salem and became fluent in the German language. He was surprised one morning when he was woken up and told, “our countries are at war”. The SS promptly arrested Brown, imprisoned him for three days, and then drove him to the Swiss border where he was released. He made his way back to Britain and carried out his war service. He would later become involved in the interrogation of Nazi war criminals – including Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Goering and Josef Kramer, the commandant of concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. Goering he thought “quite charismatic” but on Kramer and his assistant, Irma Grese, Brown said, “two more loathsome creatures it is hard to imagine.”
5. Flew a helicopter home hours after reading the instruction manual
"Here's your instructor," an American officer told Brown when he handed him the manual to the Sikorsky R-4B helicopter (Credit: USAF Museum/Wikipedia)
In 1945, Brown and colleague Anthony F Martindale, were tasked with bringing two Sikorsky R-4B helicopters from RAF Speke to RAF Farnborough. They’d never flown these aircraft before and when they arrived at Speke, the American master sergeant simply handed them a manual and said, “Here’s your instructor”. They read it and then began experimenting with the R-4Bs. Eventually they felt they ought to get back to Farnborough and so, after a stiff drink, took off together in one helicopter each. “I don’t know how we made it,” Brown later wrote.
6. Favoured an “over-powered” aircraft
The "Ferrari in the sky", as Brown referred to it, was the British-made de Havilland Hornet (Credit: Crown Copyright/Wikipedia)
Eric Brown flew so many planes and helicopters that it might be a surprise to learn he had two clear favourites. Of piston-engined craft he chose the de Havilland Hornet, which he said was “over-powered”. He called it a “Ferrari in the sky”. When it came to jets, Brown singled out the F-86 Sabre Model E, which he said had “perfect harmony of control”. The 86E had a moving tailplane which helped pilots manoeuvre the aircraft at high speed – even beyond the speed of sound.
7. Rode in a “wall of death” stunt – with a real lion
While a student at Edinburgh University, Brown became a stuntman rider to help make ends meet, The Scotsman reported. One memorable feat was his riding in a “wall of death” – with a lion in his motorbike sidecar for company. As if landing aircraft on aircraft carrier decks and testing experimental rocket fighters wasn’t enough, Twitter has been abuzz with pics of circling drivers and their lion companions since Brown’s death – a bizarre tribute to a man who led a life less ordinary.
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