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Few would argue with the contention that Eric Brown is the greatest test pilot who ever lived—except, of course, for Brown himself.

First pilot to land a pure jet on an aircraft carrier. First to land a tricycle gear airplane on a carrier. First to land a high-performance twin on a carrier. First deck landing of a twin-engine jet on a British carrier. A pilot with 487 different aircraft in his logbook, including 55 captured German planes in World War II. The only Allied pilot to fly the “suicidal” Messerschmitt Me-163B under rocket power. A naval aviator who saw combat over the Atlantic, survived being torpedoed and went on to become arguably the greatest test pilot of all time. No ordinary mortal then, this Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown, CBE, DSC, AFC, Royal Navy.

It was therefore with a mixture of fascination and awe that I called at his Sussex home in the fall of 2008 to be greeted by a slight, genial man whose sprightly demeanor belied his 89 years. Prominently displayed inside the hall was an arrester hook mounted on a wooden plaque presented to Brown by the U.S. Navy Tailhook Association in recognition of his world record 2,407 deck landings, just one example of his remarkable collection of aeronautical memorabilia.

Eric Melrose Brown was born in Edinburgh in January 1919. His father had served with the Royal Flying Corps, first as a balloon observer and later as a pilot, although too late to see combat in that role. Brown junior’s first flight was circa 1928, on his father’s lap in a Royal Air Force biplane fighter up from Turn – house, Edinburgh. Far from being an inspirational moment, the pungent airplane smells and the sensations of flight made him feel nauseous. Worse, his mother was furious when she found out.

Brown’s father always cultivated a wide range of aviation contacts. During a visit to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, he introduced his son to the World War I fighter ace Ernst Udet, who later took the youngster up for a half hour’s exuberant aerobatics in a Bücker Jungmann trainer. This was the defining moment when he determined to become a fighter pilot himself. He also met aviatrix Hanna Reitsch. Later Brown admitted: “Much has been written of the evils of this era in Germany, but I was too inexperienced to sense the underlying tensions….To me it seemed truly an aviator’s Utopia.”

Impatient to get into the air, in 1937 Brown joined the Edinburgh University Air Squadron at Turnhouse, gaining his RAF wings after 120 flying hours with a rare “exceptional” rating. He was in Munich on a university exchange in September 1939 when two SS men hammered on his door and told him, “Our countries are at war.” Rigorously interrogated, he expected to be interned, or worse. But the Red Cross intervened and he was bundled over the Swiss frontier, where the SS even restored his MG sports car to him.

Back in England, finding the RAF was in no rush for pilots, Brown volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) of the Royal Navy, even though this meant repeating basic flight training. Temporary Sub-Lieutenant E.M. Brown, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, duly passed at the top of his class (future Fairey test pilot Peter Twiss was 38th) and was selected for fighter pilot training.

Assigned to No. 802 Squadron at Donibristle in Fife, Brown was briefly detached to No. 810 Squadron, flying an obsolescent Blackburn Skua dive bomber in a sortie against oil tanks in Norway. He was back with No. 802 in time for the arrival of the first Grumman Martlet (F4F Wildcat) aircraft under the Lend-Lease agreement.

For the “poor relation” FAA, used to receiving airplanes a generation behind the RAF, the American high-performance carrier fighter was a revelation. Unhappily for Brown, he put a Martlet into the Firth of Forth during a special air display for Winston Churchill. The prime minister later sent the chastened young pilot his condolences.

Brown encountered a portent of things to come when, during a training flight on May 14, 1941, bad weather forced him down at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire. Next morning he observed “a small propellerless aeroplane being pushed out…it took off to a screaming note of some power source unknown to me, climbed away smoothly and then seventeen minutes later returned to land.” He had witnessed the maiden flight of Britain’s first jet aircraft, the revolutionary Gloster E.28/39.

Soon after that, No. 802 joined the auxiliary carrier HMS Audacity, a 5,600-ton cutdown former German merchantman with a tiny 420-by-60-foot flight deck grafted on top, but no hangar for its six Martlets (nightly maintenance was carried out on deck by hooded torchlight). Despite the carrier’s “terrifying smallness,” Brown made his first-ever deck landing with characteristic aplomb: “I pulled back the throttle lever. There was a bump. I was down….After that it was easy.”

Audacity’s main task was countering France-based Focke Wulf Fw-200 Condors that were bombing Allied convoys, and searching for U-boat wolf packs in the Bay of Biscay. Brown accounted for two Condors in audacious head-on attacks, recalling of the first: “I just blazed away at him as we rushed on to what looked like the inevitable conclusion….It was close enough to see the windscreen around the two German pilots shatter. As debris flew off the nose I took violent evading action.”

On December 19, 1941, shortly after Brown returned from downing his second Condor, Audacity was torpedoed by U-751. He re – called that as the carrier sank and the wire lashings holding down the fighters broke, “The Martlets plunged down the wildly tilting deck as if in formation….The shouts of men being mown down by the monsters mingled with the warning shouts.” Jumping 20 feet into the sea, he was rescued after three hours in the freezing water, one of only two survivors from his original group of 20.

When No. 802 Squadron re-formed with Hawker Hurricanes at Yeovilton in early 1942, Brown was no longer with them. Now wearing a Distinguished Service Cross ribbon, he had embarked on the second major stage of his flying career, assigned to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough to assess the Miles M.20 fighter as a prospective naval combat aircraft. He judged it “not as manoeuvrable” as the Martlet.

In May 1942, assessed as having “a natural flair for deck landing,” Brown went to No. 768 Deck Landing Squadron at Arbroath. Lacking purpose-built single-seat carrier fighters at that time, the British adapted RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires for the deck. Or, as Brown put it, “The Navy simply stuck an arrester hook on them and played it by ear.” He found the fighters’ long noses a handicap when deck landing and their undercarriages “brittle things” compared to the Martlet’s.

Next Brown moved to the Service Trials Unit, where he flew his first Axis airplanes, an Italian Fiat C.R.42 biplane fighter and a Heinkel He-115 floatplane. Then came a period of intense carrier trials flying torpedo bombers and fighters, during which “My life was one long stint of launching and landing….I piled up a staggering number of deck landings and in one case I did 112 in a row on one ship…[It got] so that I could almost pick my own wire.”

April 1943 brought a dramatic change of scene, with Brown detached to RAF Kenley to teach the Canadians of Nos. 411 and 416 squadrons how to deck land a Spitfire (for an anticipated supporting role in the Salerno landings). In exchange for the Canadians’ reluctant cooperation, he participated in fighter sweeps over occupied Europe, escorting U.S. Army Air Forces Boeing B-17s and becoming involved in wild dogfights with the Luftwaffe.

Although he scored no further confirmed victories, one incident stood out in his memo – ry. The Spitfires were escorting 100-plus Flying Fortresses when a swarm of Focke Wulf Fw-190As suddenly appeared. Just as abruptly, the sky emptied except for Brown and a lone Fw-190, which immediately attempted to get on his tail. For what seemed like hours, the two evenly matched opponents sought desperately to outmaneuver each other, with both failing to gain the crucial advantage. No shots were fired, and eventually, low on fuel, they broke off the combat. The German waggled his wings in a chivalrous farewell, and a sweat-soaked Brown returned the salute. He has often wondered about that German pilot, reflecting, “You always hoped you’d come up against a guy who’d just come out of flying training school, but seldom did.”

Back on seaborne trials, by the end of 1943 Brown had racked up almost 1,500 deck landings. In January 1944, after moving into experimental aviation with a posting to Boscombe Down, he was almost immediately dispatched to Italy to fly as many captured Italian aircraft as possible. The Macchi M.C.205V Veltro particularly impressed him—“a Ferrari of the skies,” he called it, comparable with the North American P-51 Mustang and Fw-190 of the period.

Returning to Boscombe, Brown found himself at the controls of four-engine aircraft, but with no dual instruction beforehand. “Another pilot showed me the taps and that was all,” he recalled. Transferred to the Aerodynamics Flight at RAE Farnborough and the rarefied world of pure experimental flying, in his first month he flew 13 different aircraft, seven of them prototypes. He also tried his first German fighter, an Fw-190A.

On March 25 Brown made the first deck landing of a modified de Havilland Mosquito, twice the weight of any aircraft previously landed on a British carrier. Because of its wooden construction, he said, “Some pessimists predicted it would come apart at the seams.” But the imperturbable Brown brought the big Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered twin in for a perfect three-pointer at 78 mph, practically hanging on the propellers.

As the only naval pilot at Farnborough, he was constantly involved in research flying to test catapult and arrester gear designs. The unremitting demands of test flying many different types led him to devise a special system of memorizing cockpit systems by keeping that and other vital operating data in a loose-leaf pad. He recalled, “I enjoyed this mad leapfrogging [from plane to plane] but I wanted to stay alive.”

Early in 1944, U.S. Army Air Forces Lt. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle had sought Farn borough’s help with transonic flight testing. American fighters flying top cover over B-17s had been suffering heavy losses after they dived to intercept German fighters and lost control before they could engage the enemy. Tests by Brown and others established that the P-51B Mus tang, with its laminar-flow wing, could achieve a tactical Mach number of 0.78, compared to the Lockheed P-38H Lightning’s 0.68 and the Republic P-47C Thunder – bolt’s 0.71. As a result, Doolittle recommended that his Eighth Air Force be supplied only with Mustangs.

Asked to name the greatest fighter aircraft of WWII, Brown declared that there was “not a whisker between” the Spitfire Mk. XIV, Fw-190D and P-51D. Next came the Grumman F6F Hellcat, then the Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero and Nakajima Ki.84 Frank. He deemed the Zero probably the best fighter in the world for the first three years of the war, although its lightweight agility was gained through a frightening indifference to pilot survival. He considered the Messerschmitt Me-109G inferior to the Spitfire Mk. IX and the P-51C, but added that pilot quality would always win out.

The Thunderbolt Brown judged as good for ground attack, the Lightning best suited to reconnaissance. Conceding that the P-38 had succeeded as a fighter in the Pacific, he explained that he felt this was partly attributable to the poor quality of Japanese pilots by that late stage of the war.

Brown entered the jet age in the summer of 1944, flying a Gloster Meteor. He found its tremendous speed and perfect visibility a revelation, although its poor takeoff performance made it unsuitable for carrier operations. A Bell P-59 Airacomet, acquired by Farnborough in exchange for a Meteor, he considered “a terribly ponderous aeroplane,” before deciding that the de Havilland Spider Crab, later Vampire, seemed the best of the lot. Brown would score a historic first with a Vampire, making the first-ever landing on a carrier of a pure jet aircraft on HMS Ocean on December 3, 1945. However, the type never entered naval service due to inadequate fuel capacity and poor engine pickup.

Brown’s heavy involvement in the testing of jet aircraft brought its inevitable crop of engine failures and forced landings. He remembered: “My sudden materialisation, inevitably in shirtsleeves, in a plane without a propeller, asking for fuel which they had never heard of, protesting to be a naval officer flying an RAF machine from a civilian establishment, was a shock. I was often virtually arrested.” Eventually an Avro Lancaster mother plane from Farnborough would appear with the urgently needed fuel.

In the chaotic months after the fall of the Third Reich, the German-speaking Lt. Cmdr. Brown was very much in demand. He got flight briefings by personally interrogating aircraft designers such as Willy Messerschmitt, Ernst Heinkel and Kurt Tank, and later Hanna Reitsch.

Placed in charge of the RAE’s Enemy Aircraft Flight (EAF), he flew 55 different German airplanes, most at Farnborough, but others in the formerly occupied territories. To assist him, Brown recruited two former Luftwaffe technicians from an Arado Ar-234B squadron in Norway. Together they flew all over Europe in a Siebel Si-204D light twin, which they used as a flying workshop, inspecting ex-Luftwaffe aircraft before flying them back to England. Sometimes the only guidance Brown had were notes compiled from interrogated Luftwaffe pilots.

Around this time Brown came into contact with “Watson’s Whizzers,” the USAAF unit led by Colonel Harold Watson that was charged with collecting and shipping enemy aircraft back to the U.S. In one bizarre ex – change, he traded four airworthy Ar-234s with Watson for an opportunity to interrogate Hermann Göring.

In parallel, testing proceeded apace in England, with Brown flying 30 different types in one month. On one of his more hectic days, for example, he piloted eight different aircraft: a Bell P-63 Kingcobra, Gloster Meteor I, Super marine S.24/37, de Havilland Sea Hornet, Junkers Ju-188, Avro Lancaster, Sikorsky R-4B Gadfly helicopter and Hawker Tempest Mk. V.

The undoubted peak of Brown’s EAF phase was his self-authorized flight in a rocket-powered Me-163B Komet interceptor at Husum—having given the members of an anxious German ground crew a note absolving them of all responsibility. Following a “thunderous” engine run to familiarize himself with the rocket motor, he recalled: “I was away on the take-off run….After jettisoning the trolley and retracting the skid, the Komet accelerated very rapidly to 450 mph to set up a 45 degree climb—all of this felt like being in charge of a runaway train.” After simulating an attack on a bomber at 30,000 feet, and with all rocket fuel expended, he glided safely back to Husum, where he was greeted by a very relieved ground crew.

Brown assessed the Komet as “Probably more lethal to its pilots than to its enemies….a tool of desperation, but a delight to fly.” He was the only Allied pilot ever to fly one under rocket power.

Recalling the Komet flight in 2008, Brown admitted to “an inescapable feeling of being not totally in charge; things were happening faster than my thought processes.” He believed, however, that his experience with rocket-assisted takeoffs in naval aircraft had given him some inkling of what to expect.

His Komet flight remained a secret for years because, although encouraged by Farnborough, Brown had no military authorization and could have faced a court-martial as a result. He had been determined to make the flight because he realized that the ban on transporting the volatile rocket fuel to England meant the aircraft would never be flown there.

Another highlight of Brown’s time with the EAF was his flight in the Ar-234B jet, “a magnificent aeroplane of which no real equivalent existed in the Allied order of battle.” Then the Messerschmitt Me-262A, which despite it shortcomings he rated as “the most formidable aircraft of World War II…a pilot’s aeroplane which had to be flown and not just heaved into the air…it was thoroughly exciting to fly” (comparable for “sheer exhilaration” to the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II).

In retrospect, Brown found the huge German reservoir of aeronautical genius frightening, not least their ability to produce a jet like the Heinkel He-162 Volksjäger in 90 days from conception to first flight. He attributed this aptitude primarily to the well-equipped aeronautical research facilities at all the major German universities. But Brown credited the German lead in jet technology at least in part to the Nazis’ utilization of supersonic wind tunnels—whereas Farnborough had only used subsonic tunnels. Hence, the Me-262 and the He-162 “would have made cat’s meat” of the Gloster Meteor had they ever met in combat.

The postwar years saw Brown involved in projects too numerous to list in full, but including tests on “rogue” aircraft such as the Avro Tudor I, the first pressurized British transport; the General Aircraft GAL.56 tailless glider; and the de Havilland D.H.108 Swallow, which had killed test pilot Geoffrey de Havilland Jr. After remaining at the forefront of naval flight testing, he returned to Royal Navy duty in December 1949 with No. 802 Squadron, flying Hawker Sea Furies.

In mid-1951, Brown went on exchange duty to the Flight Test Division of the U.S. Naval Air Test Center in Patuxent River, Md., where his CO was U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Marion Carl. There he flew American jets such as the Grumman F9F-2 Panther, McDonnell F2H-3 Banshee and North American F-86 Sabre, which he admiringly dubbed “the Spitfire of the jet age.” To the U.S. Navy he passed on the principle of the angled carrier deck and, flying a Panther, he demonstrated the new British steam catapult from the deck of HMS Perseus, then tied up in a Philadelphia dockyard.

After a qualifying spell at sea in a frigate, in December 1953 Brown went to Lossiemouth in Scotland to command No. 804 Squadron, converting the unit from Hawker Sea Furies to Sea Hawk jets. The summer of 1954 saw him move to the fighter station at RNAS Brawdy in Pembrokeshire, where he served as Commander (Air).

In 1958 Brown was detached to Germany to help set up the German naval air arm at Kiel and Schleswig, starting with Sea Hawks and Fairey Gannets. Promoted to captain in December 1960, he was appointed air deputy director of the Gunnery Division at the Admiralty, becoming heavily involved in the battle to acquire the Phantom II for the Royal Navy. Then it was back to Germany as naval attaché in Bonn.

From September 1967 until his retirement from the navy in March 1970, Brown was station commander at Lossiemouth, the main base for the Blackburn Buccaneer tactical nuclear strike aircraft. An anticipated promotion to flag rank became a casualty of cutbacks in naval aviation.

Brown’s last service flight drew an appropriately dramatic line under a unique career. He was flying a Westland S-55 Whirlwind helicopter on a search-and-rescue mission during heavy February snows when it suffered an engine failure at 800 feet. He recollected that, after going into autorotation and lacking visual references on the snow-covered ground, “I noticed a three-stranded wire fence and thought if I could hook my tail skid to the wire I might make a safe arrested landing, and so it transpired.” That simple.

By the end of his 33-year flying career he had flown 487 different types of aircraft (not including type variants) and become the undisputed world deck-landing virtuoso.

In retirement, Brown became chief executive of the British Helicopter Advisory Board. He also tested flight simulators, in 2007 traveling to Ft. Worth, Texas, to test Lockheed-Martin’s F-35 Lightning II simulator. Moreover, he continued flying well into his 70s, and still lectures regularly in the UK and Germany.

Brown has recently co-authored a book on the Miles M.52, a particular hobbyhorse of his. He fervently believes that the termination of this project and the passing of the design details to the U.S. deprived Britain of the opportunity to be first to break the sound barrier. The cancellation left him with a deep mistrust of politicians that was reinforced by the abandonment of the British Aircraft Corp oration TSR-2 supersonic bomber in 1965 and, later, the scrapping of the Royal Navy’s fixed-wing carriers, which left the Falklands Task Force grievously exposed to Argentine air attack in 1982.

Reminded of Hawker chief test pilot Bill Humble’s memorable assertion, “In an era of outstanding tests pilots Winkle was simply the best,” Brown modestly rejected the notion. Instead he nominated Scott Cross – field and Neil Armstrong as joint contenders, the latter because of the moon landing and his flights in the North American X-15.

Asked how he had survived when so many other test pilots perished, Brown credited his relatively short stature. It had saved him from death or serious injury in several incidents when taller pilots, unable to extricate themselves from the cockpit, might easily have been killed. But most crucial of all was his insistence on meticulous preparation. Smiling mischievously, he said that he had never subscribed to the old RAF dictum, “Kick the tyres, light the fires and the last one off is a sissy.”

As for the anxiety factor, Brown attributed his apparent lack of fear when test flying to “the rash confidence of youth in my own immortality.” According to his late wife Lynn, however, there was another explanation: “Eric has no imagination. He just can’t see himself making a hole in the ground.”

Finally, on the origin of the nickname “Winkle,” Brown confided that by Royal Navy tradition he inherited it only after Lt. Cmdr. Eugene “Winkle” Esmonde, VC, another FAA pilot of short stature, was killed while leading a Fairey Swordfish attack during the “Channel Dash” by German battle-cruisers on February 12, 1942.

After the interview I reflected that while Winkle Brown’s incredible career would defy belief as an adventure story, the man himself was utterly unassuming. Although he would strenuously deny it, Brown is an aviation legend, someone who if he is not incontrovertibly the greatest test pilot ever, has certainly never been surpassed in airborne versatility. It had been my great privilege to spend a few hours in his company.

Postcript: Two days before Brown celebrated his 90th birthday on January 21, 2009, the Royal Navy sent a Lynx helicopter from the Yeovilton-based No. 702 Squadron to Redhill in Surrey to honor the Fleet Air Arm’s most famous pilot by taking him for a spin. They also presented him with a photo – montage of today’s British naval aircraft, dedicated to “a legend of the Fleet Air Arm.” A delighted Brown commented that to survive as a test pilot during and after WWII, “You needed a bit of luck, and I think I’ve had my share.”


RAF veteran Derek O’Connor recommends for further reading Eric Brown’s Wings On My Sleeve and Wings of the Luftwaffe.

Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here