Captain Eric Melrose "Winkle" Brown, CBE, DSC, AFC, Hon FRAeS, RN, lived from 21 January 1919 to 21 February 2016. He was a renowned naval aviator and test pilot who holds a record unlikely ever to be beaten for the largest number of different aircraft types flown by a single person (487). He also holds the record for the largest number of aircraft carrier take-offs and landings performed by a single person, 2,407 and 2,271 respectively. And he was the most-decorated pilot in the history of the Royal Navy, who in later life was widely acknowledged by others as "the greatest pilot ever". The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Eric Brown was born in Leith. His father had served in the Royal Flying Corps during World War One, and Brown first flew in the late 1920s when he was taken up in a Gloster Gauntlet single-engined biplane fighter, sitting on his father's knee. In 1936, the 17-year-old Brown was taken by his father to see the Berlin Olympics. The existence of the Luftwaffe, the German air force, had only recently been acknowledged at the time, and Brown was taken by his father to meet a number of the key members of the organisation, including Ernst Udet, a World War One fighter ace. On discovering Eric's love of flying, Ernst Udet took him up as a passenger in a two-seat Bücker Jungmann and treated him to a vigorous display of aerobatics. This was so memorable that the incident was recounted by Eric when he appeared as a guest on the 3,000th edition of BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in November 2014.
In 1937 Brown left Edinburgh's Royal High School and moved on to the University of Edinburgh, where he studied modern languages with a particular emphasis on German. While there he joined what would later become the University Air Squadron and learned to fly. In February 1938 he returned to Germany to attend an Automobile Exhibition at the invitation of Ernst Udet, by now a major-general in the Luftwaffe, with support from Britain's Foreign Office. Here he witnessed the indoor demonstration of the Focke-Wulf Fw 61 helicopter by Hanna Reitsch. In 1939 Brown's language studies saw him placed at the Schule Schloss Salem, near Lake Constance in southern Germany. On the outbreak of World War Two he was briefly detained by the SS, before being allowed to drive into nearby Switzerland.
Back in Britain, Brown joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve as a Fleet Air Arm pilot, and was posted to 802 Squadron, flying the Grumman Martlet fighter from the Royal Navy's first escort carrier, HMS Audacity. He shot down two Luftwaffe marine patrol aircraft before HMS Audacity was sunk by a U-boat on 21 December 1941. Brown was one of only 24 survivors from the ship. He subsequently went on to fly with Royal Canadian Air Force units stationed in Britain, before going to Italy in 1943 to evaluate captured enemy aircraft. On his return to Britain he was posted to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, where his expertise in carrier operations was put to use testing the newly navalised Sea Hurricane and Seafire. By the end of 1943 he had made some 1,500 deck landings on 22 different aircraft carriers. On 25 March 1944 he made the first ever landing of a twin-engined aircraft on an aircraft carrier. He also became involved in high speed testing of aircraft it was hoped could tackle the growing threat of V1 flying bombs, learning lessons that were then applied to fighters escorting bombers of the United States Army Air Forces over Germany.
In 1944, Brown began testing jet aircraft. In February 1945, having taught himself the basics of control from a manual handed to him shortly before take off, he flew one of the first Sikorsky R-4 helicopters from Liverpool to Farnborough. On 4 April that year he made the world's first landing and take off from an aircraft carrier in an aircraft with a tricycle undercarriage (i.e. a nosewheel). Near the end of World War Two, Brown was given command of "Operation Enemy Flight", whose aim was to collect as much information as possible about the Luftwaffe's many advanced aircraft programmes. This led to him landing at a Luftwaffe airfield in Denmark to take possession of a number of Arado Ar 234 twin-jet bombers, only to find that the allied ground troops who were meant to have captured the airfield had not yet arrived. Luckily the Luftwaffe commander was content to surrender his airfield and his 2,000 men to Brown, who subsequently arranged for the return of a dozen of the aircraft to Britain. His fluency in German also led to his being asked to help interrogate the camp commander of the newly liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
After the war, Brown continued to test enemy aircraft at Farnborough, flying 53 different Luftwaffe types in all including the formidable (and from a pilot's perspective often fatal) Me 163 Komet rocket fighter. He also helped interview many key German aviation experts, including Wernher von Braun, Hermann Göring, Willy Messerschmitt and Dr. Ernst Heinkel. He later moved on to more high speed testing of many different types of aircraft, including the experimental de Havilland DH.108, a type which had earlier killed Geoffrey de Havilland, Jr., which nearly killed Brown, and which would go on to kill Brown's successor in the test programme. On 3 December 1945 he made the world's first landing of a jet aircraft on an aircraft carrier when he arrived on board HMS Ocean in a de Havilland Sea Vampire.
Later testing work included flying the Saunders-Roe SR.A/1 jet-powered flying boat. In the 1950s he went to the United States, where he demonstrated the Royal Navy's steam catapult and the newly devised angled deck to the US Navy. The USN embraced both innovations on their own aircraft carriers with enthusiasm. During a two year secondment to the United States Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent in Maryland, Brown continued to add to his collection of types flown, including 36 different types of helicopter.
In 1957, Brown became Chief of the British Naval Mission to Germany, where he played an important role in re-establishing German naval aviation as a separate arm from the post-war Luftwaffe. This progressed so quickly that in 1960 the newly-established Marineflieger squadrons were integrated into NATO. He later spent a short period as a test pilot for the Focke-Wulf company. In the 1960s, Brown served as deputy director of naval air warfare in the Admiralty and helped plan new Royal Navy aircraft carriers. In September 1967, by now a captain, he took command of HMS Fulmar, the Royal Naval Air Station that has since become RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. He held this post until March 1970, albeit combining his final year with service as a naval aide de camp to Queen Elizabeth II. He retired from the Royal Navy in 1970.
Eric Brown continued to play an active role in aviation. He served as president of the Royal Aeronautical Society from 1982-83, and was a prolific author and contributor of articles to aviation magazines. He made his final flight as a pilot (at the age of 75) in 1994, but didn't slow down. At the time he was interviewed for Desert Island Discs in November 2014, he had just bought himself a new sports car. He died on 21 February 2016 at the age of 97. His wife Lynn Macrory, who he had married in 1942, had died in 1998.