If Wings on My Sleeve was a novel, an astute reader would toss it aside as unbelievable balderdash. Not even the most heroic fictional pilot could have flown more than 500 types of airplanes, set the record for aircraft carrier launches and recoveries (2,407) and be of such towering importance as a test pilot. Nor would we believe that the first flight of the hero was in a Bücker Jungman piloted by Ernst Udet. Finally, on the hero’s last service flight, 33 years and thousands of hours later, it would be too much if he executed a one-in-a-million emergency landing. In this over-the-top ending, the hero manages to save an auto-rotating Westland Whirlwind helicopter by hooking its tail skid on a wire fence, bringing it to a safe, if arrested, landing.
Amazingly, this is not a novel but the straight truth, the autobiography of Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown, whom many consider the greatest test pilot of all time. (Stop, for a moment, and run the names of Scott Crossfield, Bill Bridgeman, Chuck Yeager, Bob Cardenas, Roland Beamont, Jeffrey Quill, Fritz Wendel and other giants in the field through your mind, and think what that means!)
Captain Brown is a short, slight man with a delightful self-deprecating manner. He writes of his unparalleled adventures in a warm, entertaining, yet clinically accurate style. Brown captures the thrill of difficult test flying in short, simple sentences. Consider this section, written about testing a de Havilland Mosquito for carrier deck landings: “Gradually I brought down the speed. Suddenly the stick cracked over into the corner, the ailerons locked and she stalled with a bang, turning almost completely upside down. I was shaken. I had never been in such a vicious stall. There would be no margin for mishandling.”
Working in an honors program at Edinburgh University, Brown began his flying career as so many future RAF pilots did, in the University Air Squadron. He was detained while visiting in Germany when war came in 1939, and it is probable that only his connections with Udet permitted his return to Great Britain. There, he immediately enlisted in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. From this point on, he moved with the assurance of a sleepwalker through flight training to launching in Grumman Martlets from HMS Audacity, the very first escort carrier, to shooting down Focke Wulf Fw-200C Kuriers over the heaving North Atlantic.
Winkle was plucked from the sea after U-boats sank Audacity in the Mediterranean, and was assigned to the Royal Aviation Establishment at Farnborough to test a Miles M.20 fighter.
It was the start of a brilliant flight-testing career, one in which Winkle flew almost every type of Allied and Axis aircraft and became chief naval test pilot. Jimmy Doolittle has been called “the master of the calculated risk,” but Brown must be called the “master of the incalculable risk,” for he often had no more instruction in those foreign aircraft than a scrap of paper listing the English translations for their German, Italian, Russian or Japanese instrument markings. Of Winkle it can truly be said, “If he could fly one, he could fly them all.”
And that’s what he did, day in and day out for many years of intensive testing. A typical page in his logbook shows that on a single day he made eight flights, one each in the Bell Kingcobra, Gloster Meteor I, Supermarine S.24/37, de Havilland Sea Hornet, Junkers Ju-188, Avro Lancaster, Sikorsky Gadfly and Hawker Tempest 5.
Winkle’s skills became so well known that he was assigned to test “rogue aircraft,” death-laden types such as the Fairey Barracuda or the Avro Tutor, in a desperate attempt to “winkle out” the faulty flight characteristics.
It is impossible to pick the “best” part of this book, for it ranges from Brown’s obsessive quest to fly the Messerschmitt Me-163 rocket fighter under power to his joy in flying the Me-262 to his interrogations of leading figures such as Hermann Goering, Hanna Reitsch and others. His dedication to carrier aviation is fascinating, for he led the way in testing new fighters, catapults and techniques, and was the first man to land a jet on an aircraft carrier. He served with the late great Marion Carl at Patuxent Naval Air Station, flying the latest American jets and passing on Royal Navy developments, including the angle-deck carrier. Brown was a strong advocate of Britain’s acquisition of the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II.
Winkle continued in the front rank of test flying, but seniority inevitably moved him into regular Royal Navy assignments. Honors were showered upon him, and he became a familiar figure in diplomatic circles as the naval attaché in Germany. Captain Brown was a close friend of many of the greats in the aviation industry. In person he was charming, self-effacing and always brilliant, whether lecturing or over the dinner table.
There are some great books on test flying out there; this has to rank as one of the top two.
Originally published in the May 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.