It will be with great sadness to all those who, young and old alike, had the great pleasure and honour of meeting or having at some point known Captain Eric “Winkle” Melrose Brown to learn of his death over the weekend at the age of 97 following a short illness.
The Royal Navy will be greatly saddened to have lost a man who over the past forty 46 years since he retired from his final Lossiemouth posting in 1970 has been nothing short of a ‘living legend’ ever since. What a man; what an extraordinary career as a test pilot; what an amazing set of records he set and that will unlikely ever be bettered. What a brilliant job of work that he did and rightly, how grateful the UK aerospace industry is to him for what he did for them over so many years. What a fantastic example “Winkle” Brown has been and has set for us all and particularly the many that subsequently followed him into the Royal Navy and indeed, the Royal Air Force too. What a truly delightful man that he was particularly when one was able to talk to him about the many events, the many excitements and dangers of being a test pilot and of so many different aircraft and helicopters during his long, interesting and very eventful life.
Diminutive and yet commanding presence one could so easily have been in awe of the man had it not been that he was always at pains to put you at your ease. He had a wonderful self-deprecating habit and yet he was always so exciting to listen to as he recalled countless exploits and stories of his career of the aircraft he had flown and the people he had met and almost always said with a wonderful smile on his face. Yes, the Royal Navy has lost one of its best but so too have the rest of us and particularly all those engaged in manned flight.
Born in Edinburgh in 1919, the same year that Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown flew their modified Vickers Vimy 1V aircraft from St. John’s Newfoundland to Clifden, Ireland (a distance of 1,980 miles in 16 hours, 12 minutes) I rather suspect that “Winkle” Brown’s original interest in flying came because his father was, during WW1, a member of the Royal Flying Corp.
In 1937, at the age of 18, “Winkle” Brown joined the University Air Unit, the forerunner of what we know today as the University Air Squadron. Learning to fly at an airfield near Edinburgh under the auspices of 603 Royal Auxiliary Air Force Squadron (motto Gin ye daur – “If you dare’) the young University Air Squadron Pilot Officer Eric Brown very quickly obtained his wings.
Of his move from the Roya Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) to the Fleet Air Arm which in his excellent memoir “Wings on My Sleeve” published by Arthur Barker in 2006 “Winkle” Brown describes “as the flying branch of the Navy” he tells us “that the RAFVR was not in a same state of flap as the Fleet Air Arm and had no rush for my services”. However, he goes on to say that “I suddenly remembered a lecture at school from an Old Boy who had been a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, flying from carriers at sea, and how exciting he had made it sound. And if it would get me into the air right away…..I took about five minutes to make up my mind….I said I’ll join”. The rest is history.
It is unimaginable that Eric “Winkle” Brown’s record of flying 487 aircraft types might one day be broken and I rather doubt that the world record of 2,407 carrier landings will be broken by someone else either. His Royal Navy career was exemplary throughout and when he wasn’t test flying he had other roles too. He met and indeed, interrogated Herman Goering and twenty years later as Naval Attaché in Bonn, accompanied HM The Queen when she arrived in Hamburg on the hugely significant State Visit to Germany in 1965.
“Winkle” Brown had witnessed the liberation of Bergen Belsen concentration camp and it is worth recalling that, due to his original career choice when at Edinburgh University being the Diplomatic Service and where, if lucky enough to be chosen, the Foreign Office would sponsor the penultimate year of what was a four-year degree course being spent as an exchange student teacher, “Winkle” Brown found himself in Munich on the day that war with Germany was declared being arrested only to be freed three days later and sent over the Swiss border. Had they known he was a pilot as well things might have been very different.
While records that “Winkle” Brown set will be regarded as his abiding achievements we should not ignore the huge risks that he took as a test pilot throughout his long career in this area. He was for many years the Chief Naval Test Pilot at the Roya Aircraft Establishment Farnborough and the first Royal Navy officer to command the world renowned Aerodynamics Flight. During his career he flew everything that could fly fighter aircraft, bombers, transports, airliners, amphibians, flying boats, helicopters and gliders – you name it, he flew it.
Never flinching, not only did he fly every major combat aircraft that ever flew during WW2 and beyond, including early British jet aircraft, but he also flew the extremely dangerous German Me 163 rocket plane. What a man – what an important place he holds in the history of manned flight and in this 150th anniversary year of the Royal Aeronautical Society. He will be greatly missed by all of those that had the great honour and pleasure of knowing him.
CHW (London 22nd February 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS