Friday, 26 February 2016

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to its oldest and greatest test pilot, Captain Eric 'Winkle' Brown

Eric, who has died at the age of 97, between the 1930s and 1980's flew 487 types of aircraft, ranging from gliders to fighters, bombers, airliners, amphibians, flying boats and helicopters. This is more than any other pilot has flown, or is ever likely to fly. His 2,407 deck landings at sea including the first in a jet plane and 2,721 catapult launches are world records which are unlikely ever to be broken.
Blessed with exceptional skill and completely without fear, he received the affectionate nickname, 'Winkle' from his Royal Navy colleagues. It was short for the small mollusc, the 'periwinkle' because of his 5 ft 7 in stature which enabled him to put his "legs under the seat and curl up like a little ball in the cockpit," which he believed had "saved me because there were occasions I would have lost my legs in crashes."

What you possibly didn't know about Eric, that he :

Was born Leith, Edinburgh in 1919, the son of Euphemia and Robert, who a few years before, during the First World War, was an infantryman in the Royal Scots, then in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) Balloon Unit as a Battlefront Observer and pilot, before transferring to the RAF when it was formed in 1918. Eric recalled : "I think I was about 8 or 10 and my mother was very anti me being indoctrinated into aviation, but regardless of this, he took me up in a 'Gauntlet' sitting on his knee, which was really one of the stupid things to do, but there we are. I sat there and he allowed me to move the stick around. That's the first time I actually flew. Of course my Mother didn't know about it at all or she would have gone through the roof . He was quite determined I should have a feel for aviation."

At the age of 11 he won a scholarship to the prestigious Royal High Grammar School for Boys in Edinburgh where he excelled both in the classroom and, despite his diminutive stature, in gymnastics and rugby and while there, had to come to terms with the premature death of his mother.
He recalled : "I've always had in my life a tendency to try something hazardous. I was the only one at school that had a motorbike, a 500cc Norton. I used to make my summer money by being a motorbike rider on the wall of death."

A visit to the Berlin Olympics with his father when he was 17 in 1936, saw Robert take advantage of his RFC background and introduce Eric to Ernst Udet, the second highest scoring German ace in the First World War after Von Richthofen, the Red Baron and Hanna Reitch, the remarkable female test pilot.

Ernst, who was Head of the Technical Department of the German Air Ministry, asked him if he would like to fly. He recalled : "We went down to the airfield in Halle and he took me up in a 'Bucker Jungmann', which is a two seat trainer. He strapped me in very securely and I thought : 'that's nice. He very concerned about this.' Anyway off we went. He did every aerobatic known to man. " 

"I was hanging on to my stomach grimly, but managed not to throw up and finally when we came into land and he was on the glide, suddenly turned this thing upside down and I was convinced had had a heart attack and I thought : 'This is it', when, because he hadn't said a word, suddenly, he rolled it over and landed. He was that magnificent display pilot. When he touched down, I was speechless throughout and he roared with laughter and of course this was a great joke, but when I got out he slapped me on the back and he gave me  a German fighter pilot's greeting which is : "Hals und Beinbruch", which really means "Broken neck and broken leg".  It's just saying : "You've stood up to this well". On the drive home he said to me : "You know Ill make a deal with you. If you learn to speak German and learn to fly you can come back and see me some time."

Eric's flight with Udet must have been similar to the one Udet made by German teenager 'Heinz' in 1935, filmed as part of the Government's efforts to promote recruitment to the Lufwaffe :

To fulfil his part of the deal with Ernst, Eric left school in 1937 and became an undergraduate at Edinburgh University reading Modern Languages specialising in German and joined the University Air Squadron where he learned to fly. As part of his university course, he returned to Germany at the age of 19, as an Exchange Teacher working at Schule Schloss Salem. He renewed his acquaintance with Ernst and Hanna and saw her fly a Focke-Wulf 61 helicopter. When he met her again nearly ten years later, after Germany's defeat in the Second World War, he said that her fanatical loyalty to Hitler “made my blood run cold”.

In 1939, as war approached, though still a student, he returned to Germany at the request of the Government : "A little group from the Foreign Office asked me if I was interested in joining the Diplomatic Corps ? Having agreed, in early September I decided to go to Munich for a weekend and drive up in my car. On the third of September, at about six in the morning, there was thunderous knock on my door. Two SS officers said "I have to tell you, you are under arrest because our two countries are at war." After 3 days incarceration, was escorted in his MG Magnette sports car to the Swiss border and expelled from the country. They told him they were allowing him to keep the car because they "had no spares for it".

At the age of 20, back in Britain and having been told by the RAF that “there was no rush for my services”, he enlisted in the Fleet Air Arm and was posted for fighter training to Belfast, where he met his future wife, Evelyn. He then moved on to Yeovilton in Someset and flew the 'Gloster Gladiator' in his first encounters with the Luftwaffe. His first operational appointment was the 802 Naval Air Squadron flying the 'Grumman Martlet' which he described as a 'tough, fiery, beautiful little airplane."

From the converted Carribean banana boat, now the escort carrier 'Audacity', he provided fighter protection to North Atlantic convoys. He was twice involved when his squadron shot several German long-range bombers and he himself shot down two four-engined Focke-Wulf Kurier bomber-cum-reconnaissance planes in head-on attacks and was awarded the DSC for his bravery and skill in action against enemy aircraft and in the protection of a convoy against heavy and sustained air attacks He identified the 'Focke-Wulf Kurier' Bomber as his most formidable opponent : "realising what I was up against I had studied this very carefully : how the guns could depress or elevate. There was only one black spot they couldn't reach and that was if you came in flat towards the pilot's cockpit. Your own grave danger was colliding with your target. You get that exhilarating feeling when you've nailed him."

He was in a convoy returning from Gibraltar in 1941 which was heavily attacked and on the Audacity when it sank. He recalled, with his usual understatement : "We found ourselves in the Bay of Biscay in December, which is not the healthiest place to be." A frigate rescued some of the crew but had to leave Eric with another 25 men in the sea because it was a sitting target for U-boat attack. He recalled : "We tied ourselves together and there were only two pilots, myself and my flight leader, the rest were seamen from the ship. We had mae wests which kept us afloat nicely, but they had only virtually inner tube tyres around their midriff and cords over their shoulders and after the rescuing destroyers left they fell asleep, exhaustion I think and of course they drowned because our mae wests would keep our necks out of the water, but these inner tube affairs were useless. The other guys were all lost and in the morning there was only my flight leader and myself. It was a ruthless war and it wasn't just the enemy. You had another enemy in the sea."

Back on land and in the air again he was involved forcing off course and in flight, 400 mph, German V1 flying bombs, which had targeted on British cities. This involved the dangerous manoeuvre of tipping the bombs wings using the 'Tempest V' fighter. He recalled : "I was doing a series of trials and the engine blew up and the propeller went absolutely solid. I saw the engine was on fire outside. I didn't realise I was burning inside until my feet cooked. I realised that I had to get out. Bailing out is not as easy as many people think and when I stood up in the cockpit to grip my legs over the side I was pinned back by sheer slip stream effect. So then what I did was, get one leg over the side, one leg on the seat, leaning, getting one hand on the stick, pulling it hard towards me and that catapulted me out. You don't get much time to worry about the finer points of it. The thing is to get out, move out."

Though never formally as a test pilot, Eric's flying prowess was so outstanding that he was sent to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough to test new aircraft at sea and therefore risk his life every time he climbed into the cockpit, since test pilots died at the rate of 25% each year. It was trialling the landing arrangements in new carriers, that he suffered a rare accident when, in September, he crashed a 'Fairey Firefly' on the deck of the carrier 'Pretoria Castle' and hit the crash barrier, sheared off the undercarriage and shredded the propeller, but escaped unhurt.

If landing on a carrier wasn't difficult enough, he had the attendant problem of finding it : "You are sent off into the big blue yonder, not sure where your carrier is - maybe 100 miles away in the ocean. It was Russian roulette. When landing on a carrier, you are essentially aiming for a small layby in the middle of a large lake."

In April 1945, because he was fluent in German, Eric was called upon to interrogate Josef Kramer, Commandant of the liberated Belsen Concentration Camp. He was 26 years old and the experience of entering Belsen stayed with him for the rest of his life : "What we saw was just unbelievable. There were piles of bodies as high as this roof, and a lot of people walking around like zombies, no idea what was going on at all. There were just half dead. They had taken a bulldozer and bulldozed the bodies into a pit. They were lying in terribly grotesque positions, arms and legs all over the place. That's not what really got to me. It was this appalling stench. It still does stick in my gullet."
 Two months later, he interogated Hermann Göring, who had been Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe since 1935 and brightened when he learnt that Eric was a pilot. He declined to shake Goring's hand when they parted and instead said : "Hals und Beinbruch". He also questioned rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and aircraft designers Ernst Heinkel and Willy Messerschmitt.

At the end of the War in June 1945, in accordance with Churchill's wish to test German technology, he flew a captured rocket propelled Messerschmitt ME163, which he recalled with typical understatement as "an experience I'd never had before : that the aircraft was step ahead of me. The acceleration was so colossal that you felt that you're trying to catch up with a runaway train. The other aspect, which is in your mind all time, is that you are sitting on board a load of very volatile fuels. There are two tanks and both contained concentrated hydrogen peroxide and a bullet through one of these and you've got a lot of trouble and you were locked into an aircaft which had no ejection seat, you were in a tin coffin really. As I say : 'a tool of desperation' and I haven't met a pilot yet amongst the Germans that would say he enjoyed a relaxed flight on the 163."

He conceded that "to achieve supersonic flight was the holy grail of aviation in my lifetime" and as result of this at the age of 27 in 1946 he flew an 'improved' version of the 'DH 108 Swallow', which had broken up and killed Geoffrey de Havilland and recalled that : "At 4000 feet, without any warning, I'd got a runaway longitudinal divergent oscilation ... The medics reckoned that I would've lost consciousness after 10 seconds of this, but after three seconds, just instinct : I hadn't any plan at all, I pulled the stick slowly back and the throttle together and it stopped this as quick as it had started." 

It was only in 1949 that 'Temporary Acting Lieutenant Commander RNVR (Air) Brown was granted a permanent commission in the Royal Navy, the same year that he suffered one of his rare adccidents, when a prototype jet-powered flying-boat fighter, known unaffectionatly as 'The Squirt', struck flotsam in the Solent and sank beneath him. In the 1950s, when he was in his thirties, Eric received the recognition he deserved when in 1954 he was given command of 804 Naval Air Squadron, flying the 'Sea Hawk' fighter-bomber and in 1957 he returned to Germany to train the new German naval air arm to NATO standards and was asked to help the Focke-Wulf Company as a test pilot. 
Promoted to 'Captain' in 1957 at the age of 38, he served in the Admiralty as 'Deputy Director Naval Air Warfare.' In the 1960s, he flew Chinook helicopters, Buccaneer nuclear bombers, Mach 2 Lightning and Phantom fighters and played a key role in the development of CVA01, a new large carrier which was eventually cancelled by the Labour Government. On land he served as naval attaché in Bonn from 1965 to 1967 then commanded the RN Air Station Lossiemouth until 1970, but his asperity and his single-minded advocacy of naval aviation meant there was no room for him on the flag list and he 'retired' in 1970 when he was appointed CBE.

At the age of 51 he became Chief Executive of the British Helicopter Advisory Board and was proud of his achievements :  the vision to create a nationwide network of heliports, the first of which was at Blackfriars, the promotion of the Air Ambulance and Police Helicopter Services and assistance in the foundation of the European Helicopter Association, although he thought they were overshadowed by his more glamorous exploits as a test pilot.

Back in 1962 he had been ordered to write a short autobiography that would help recruitment for the Fleet Air Arm and in 2006 at the age of 87 he revised and republished it free, of what he called 'petty censorship and security concerns' and as 'Wings on My Sleeve'.

Eric once said of flying : "You're up there on your own and you really feel this is life. I'm the king of the castle up here" and reflected, when age eventually forced out of the cockpit : "I think, when I first had to retire from flying, I think it was a feeling that a drug addict has when he cannot get his drugs. Withdrawal  symptoms were fierce for about a year and then I came to terms with it, but it wasn't easy."

At the age of 93 in 2012 Eric said, with perfect self-deprecation :
"I don't frighten easily, but I've certainly been pretty apprehensive sometimes about what might happen, but you're in a game where you know you're in a risk business and all you do in life is try and minimise that risk."

and of test flying :
"It did become an obsession with me and it was something I felt I had to do, otherwise my soul would never be at peace."


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