Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown: the death-defying WW2 pilot who flew 487 types of aircraft

National Museums Scotland,
National Museums Scotland / National Museum of Flight

The British Royal navy pilot Capt. Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown was 96 years old when he passed away at a hospital following a short illness, and while at the time he may not have been a household name there is no doubt that this aviation pioneer was one of the most important names in recent history. 

His life was simply a treasure trove of incredible achievements, record-breaking accomplishments, and lifesaving endeavors.  

Throughout his life Brown was showered with countless awards, befriended by the US astronaut Neil Armstrong, sent on vitally important missions by the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and even played drums for musician Glenn Miller.  

When he went to receive an honor from King George VI, the reigning British monarch of the time reportedly said to Brown, “What, you again?”. 

But Brown’s life was not all rainbows and butterflies, it was also filled with agonizing trauma that would no doubt have left most people completely broken. 

Early life 

It had long been thought that Brown was born in Scotland in 1919, but in June 2023, a book named “Winkle: The Extraordinary Life of Britain’s Greatest Pilot,” written by his friend and leading aviation historian Paul Beaver, made some astonishing revelations.  

While Brown is considered one of the greatest Scots of all time, Beaver discovered his friend was born in Hackney, East London, and in 1920 not 1919.  

Beaver concluded in an interview with The Herald that Brown had changed his birthplace to Leith in Scotland so he could play for the national Rugby team.  

Of course, in his heart Brown was a Scotsman and grew up there with his adopted family from when he was just a few months old.  

Brown’s father worked in the Royal Flying Corps, so it may have been this connection with aviation that instilled his passion for flying.  

In 1936, when he was 17 years old, he and his father went to see the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.  

During their time there they met Ernst Udet, a prized German fighter pilot from the First World War who would go on to become a Luftwaffe Colonel-General during the Second World War. 

Udet was also a highly accomplished aerobatic pilot and offered to take the teenage Brown up for a flight, something Brown would later describe while being interviewed for the BBC’s Desert Island Discs

“You talk about aerobatics – we did everyone I think, and I was hanging on to my tummy. So, when we landed, and he gave me the fright of my life because we approached upside-down and then he rolled out just in time to land […] But he said to me, you’ll make a fine fighter pilot – do me two favors: learn to speak German fluently and learn to fly.” 

Back in Scotland Brown became a modern languages student at the University of Edinburgh, where he joined the air unit and completed his first flying lesson.  

The following year in 1938, Brown was in Germany on an exchange program, but while abroad in September 1939 war broke out between Britain and Germany and Brown was arrested.  

Thankfully three days later he was allowed to leave Germany across the border and he quickly made his way back to Britain.  

Joining the fight 

Brown first opted to join the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve but later joined the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm in 1939.  

According to the Fly Navy Heritage Trust, which Brown later became an ambassador for, the first plane he piloted during the war was a Blackburn Skua. 

At the time, the Blackburn Skuas of 801 Naval Air Squadron were conducting raids on Norway where German forces had taken hold.  

On one occasion Brown narrowly survived an attack from a Messerschmitt Bf 109 in a Norwegian fjord. 

He described the attack in 2006 to the author of “The Blackburn Skua and Roc” (MMP Books 2007).  

“We seemed to get a few hits – then we collected a shoal of Me109s, and they pursued us along the fjord. I clung to the fjord wall and that meant they could only attack me from one side, and I was very close to the water so they couldn’t attack me from below. The only way they could do it was from above and the left. And when we did have one come in on us, the way I got rid of him was to put out the dive brakes suddenly. He got the shock of his life because we slowed right up, he had to take violent evasive action and he left us pretty well alone after that. He fired on us, and he hit us before he broke away, but not very much.” commented that this incident showed what an “extraordinarily skilled pilot even at this early stage in his career” Brown had become. 

In 1941, Brown joined 802 Squadron flying Grumman Martlets from the Royal Navy’s first auxiliary aircraft carrier, HMS Audacity. 

Brown described landing on the small deck of HMS Audacity as “challenging to say the least”.  

HMS Audacity was used to escort convoy to and from Gibraltar. According to the Royal Aeronautical Society the greatest danger to the convoys was German long-range Focke-Wulf Fw200 Condors. 

Although Brown himself acknowledged the difficulty in shooting down these aircraft, he still managed to do so on two occasions. 

However, on December 21, 1941, HMS Audacity was hit by a torpedo from a German U boat and the aircraft carrier was destroyed. 

While a rescue ship did arrive, it was forced to leave the area due to fears of another attack and Brown, along with 23 other survivors, was forced to wait in the freezing waters overnight.  

When help eventually came again the following day only Brown and one other man had survived.  

“I will never forget that fateful day. The ship reared up so steeply that the aircraft plunged down the wildly tilting deck. She sank taking all her aircraft with her. I had just landed on, so was still wearing my Mae West lifejacket. I lost many friends that day and was very lucky to survive,” Brown later said. 

The greatest ever test pilot 

Brown was being noticed by senior figures in the Royal Navy for his flying skills and ability for aircraft carrier landings so when he returned to Britain, he was sent to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE). 

It was while at the RAE that his career really began to excel with test flights completed on aircraft such as the Fairey Barracuda, Sea Hurricane and Seafire.   

But Brown did not stop there and as well as testing aircraft he was seconded to help train Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) squadrons on escort operations.  

He taught Canadian pilots deck-landing techniques and even joined them on fighter operations. 

Another unique ability Brown developed was flying enemy planes with very little instruction on how to do so.  

In 1943 he was sent to Southern Italy to evaluate captured Regia Aeronautica and Luftwaffe aircraft and in his first month while working for the Aerodynamics Flight department at Farnborough, he flew 13 foreign aircraft types, including a Focke-Wulf Fw 190. 

However, he also continued to be instrumental in aircraft carrier landings and in March 1944 landed the first twin-engine aircraft, the de Havilland Sea Mosquito, on HMS Indefatigable. 

Such was Brown’s importance and significance to the war effort that he was made chief naval test pilot at Farnborough in recognition of his performance.   

Fly Navy Heritage Trust said that by 1944 Brown was testing eight different aircraft a day and even the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill was requesting his services.  

Post-war trauma

As the Second World War was coming to an end Brown was assigned a mission to acquire German aviation knowledge and bring some of the country’s most advanced planes to Britain.  

The RAE and the Americans were particularly interested in the Arado Ar 234, a turbojet-powered bomber. 12 of these aircraft were located in Norway by Brown and brought back to the UK. 

“It was exciting but hairy at times. The Germans were developing highly sophisticated aircraft and the aerodynamics of the wing configuration for Concorde stemmed directly from that mission,” Brown later said. 

Around the same time Brown also piloted the German jet-engine powered Messerschmitt Me262 and the Heinkel He162, both of which were involved in operations during the war. 

Brown also unofficially flew the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, which was the only rocket propelled interceptor ever to be used operationally. 

On a visit to the National Museum of Flight in East Lothian in September 2016 when speaking about the aircraft, Brown said: “The noise it made was absolutely thunderous and it was like being in charge of a runaway train; everything changed so rapidly, and I really had to have my wits about me.” 

This period would also be remembered by Brown as one of his most traumatic after he was asked to go to the recently liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.  

Brown was fluent in German so in 1945 he was tasked with interviewing the camp commandant, Josef Kramer, and the warden of the women’s section, Irma Grese, who Brown later described as the “worst person I have ever met”. 

Brown also interviewed the Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Hermann Göring and even interrogated Heinrich Himmler who presented false documents trying to pretend his name was Henrich Hitzinger. 

After his time at the concentration camp, Brown said: “What was worse than the sights I saw was the stench, 70 years on I still can’t get it out of my nostrils.” 

Life after war 

Following the Second World War Brown’s exceptional flying abilities and aviation intelligence were in high demand.  

Brown became involved with the High Speed Flight project which was investing in supersonic flight with the ultimate aim to produce an aircraft that would break the sound barrier.  

The plane was to be built by Miles Aircraft and the jet engine provided by Power Jets, which was set up by Frank Whittle, the inventor of the first turbo engine. Eric Brown was selected as the test pilot for the aircraft which was named the Miles M.52. 

The British were progressing incredibly well with the development of the Miles M.52 and it seemed that the country would be the first in the world to produce an aircraft that could reach and exceed Mach 1.  

However, on February 12, 1946, the project was suddenly stopped by the UK Government, reportedly due to financial constraints and then on October 14, 1947, Brown heard the news that the US Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager had become the first person to break the sound barrier.  

Following the cancellation of Miles M.52, Brown said he felt “deep disappointment, total frustration, burning anger and heartfelt sympathy for other members of the team.” 

During the 1950s Brown worked at the United States Naval Test Pilot School, where he flew a number of aircraft, including 36 types of helicopters, and he was used to promote British inventions such as the angled flight deck.  

As the years passed Brown continued to climb the British Navy and Royal Air Force hierarchy and became a Commander for both sections of the British armed forces.  

In 1957, Brown was also given the responsibility to rebuild the German naval aviation which eventually saw the country’s aircraft integrated into NATO.  

Brown’s last position in the Royal Navy was as Captain at HMS Fulmar, then the Royal Naval Air Station, Lossiemouth and in 1969 he was appointed Naval Aide-de-Camp to Queen Elizabeth II.  

When Winkle (the nickname given to the smallest pilot in the Royal Navy) passed away on February 21, 2016, he was the most-decorated pilot in the history of the Royal Navy. 

Officially his title was, Captain Eric Melrose Brown CBE, DSC, AFC, KCVSA, PhD Hon FRAeS, RN and he has been uniquely given the Distinguished Service Cross as well as the Air Force Cross.   

He was a man of many incredible aviation firsts and in total flew 487 different types of aircraft – a world record that will never be beaten. 

At the time of his death Brown was the record holder for the most flight deck take-offs and landings (2,407 and 2,271 respectively) performed and in 1945 he also became the first person to land a jet engine powered aircraft on an aircraft carrier. 

His friend Paul Beaver believes that Brown cheated death 23 times during his flying career.  

“I reckon at least 23 – perhaps more,” Beaver told The Herald. “He should not have survived his first combat mission. But he did. And that was through sheer tenacity, bloody-mindedness and being prepared.” 

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