Who? Many people might say they have never heard of him. You could simply say he was a pilot but if you did, it would be a very large understatement.
World War II Captain Eric Melrose “Winkle” Brown, CBE, DSC, AFC, Hon FRAeS, RN, died a month after his 97th birthday in February 2016. He was a British Royal Navy officer and test pilot who flew 487 types of aircraft, more than anyone else in history. He was also the most-decorated pilot in the history of the Royal Navy. Brown holds the world record for the most aircraft carrier deck take-offs and landings performed (2,407 and 2,271 respectively) and achieved several “firsts” in naval aviation, including the first landings on an aircraft carrier of a twin-engined aircraft, an aircraft with a tricycle undercarriage, a jet aircraft, and a rotary-wing aircraft. He flew almost every category of Royal Navy and RAF aircraft: glider, fighter, bomber, airliner, amphibian, flying boat and helicopter.
During World War II, he flew many types of captured German, Italian, and Japanese aircraft, including new jet and rocket aircraft. He was a pioneer of jet technology into the post-war era.
In 1936, Brown’s father took him to see the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Hermann Göring had recently announced the existence of the Luftwaffe.
There, the Browns met Ernst Udet, a former World War I fighter ace, who was happy to make the acquaintance of Brown senior, a former RFC pilot. Udet offered to take Eric up in a two-seat Bücker Jungmann. Eric Brown recalled the incident nearly 80 years later on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs.
You can read about Brown’s career here and here. After World War II‚ Brown commanded the Enemy Aircraft Flight, an elite group of pilots who testflew captured German and Italian aircraft. That experience rendered Brown one of the few men to have been qualified to compare both Allied and Axis aeroplanes as they flew during the war. He flight-tested 53 German aircraft, including the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket fighter (now on display at the National Museum of Flight east of Edinburgh in Scotland). His flight test of this rocket plane, the only one by an Allied pilot using the rocket motor, was accomplished unofficially: it was deemed to be more or less suicidal due to the notoriously dangerous C-Stoff fuel and T-Stoff oxidizer combination.
In case you wondered about his nickname, this is the explanation: Brown received the affectionate nickname “Winkle” from his Royal Navy colleagues. Short for “Periwinkle”, a small mollusc, the name was given to Brown because of his short stature of 5ft 7in. Brown partly attributed his survival of dangerous incidents to his ability to “curl himself up in the cockpit”.
To mark the centenary of the birth of Scotland’s greatest aviator, TV and film producer Nicholas Jones re-issued the DVD of his documentary entitled Eric Brown – A Pilot’s Story (available on Amazon here). The core of Mr Jones’s comprehensive film is a long interview with Captain Brown where he opens up about his life and times – including the years he commanded the Navy’s fighter jet 804 squadron at Lossiemouth (see article by Rachel Lee, on 2nd January 2020, in The Press and Journal, here).
Eric Brown was in Germany when World War 2 broke out. He was locked up for three days by the SS then kicked out into Switzerland complete with his MG sports car. He had been selected to take part as an exchange student at the Schule Schloss Salem, located on the banks of Lake Constance, and it was while there in Germany that Brown was woken up with a loud knocking on his door one morning in September 1939. Upon opening the door, he was met by a woman with the announcement that “our countries are at war”. Soon after, Brown was arrested by the SS. However, after three days’ incarceration, they merely escorted Brown in his MG Magnette sports car to the Swiss border, saying they were allowing him to keep the car because they “had no spares for it”.