Eric “Winkle” Brown first took to the skies at age 8 while sitting in his father’s lap in a one-seat biplane. When he finally retired from test flying more than 40 years later, he had piloted fighters, helicopters, gliders, seaplanes, supersonic jets and even nuclear bombers—often just a few hours after thumbing through the manual. He also survived being torpedoed by a Nazi U-boat, witnessed the liberation of a concentration camp and had run-ins with the likes of Winston Churchill, Nazi leader Hermann Goring and rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. In describing Brown’s remarkable life and coolheaded demeanor, a BBC radio presenter once quipped that he made “James Bond seem like a bit of a slacker.”
Eric Melrose Brown was born in Leith, Scotland on January 21, 1919, the son of an ex-member of Britain’s Royal Flying Corps. When he was 17, his aviation-obsessed father brought him to the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games and introduced him to German World War I fighter ace Ernst Udet, who took him for a stomach-churning ride in a Bucker Jungmann training plane. Brown was hooked. He later wrote that from that moment on, he was “unswervingly dedicated” to becoming a pilot.
The budding aviator attended the University of Edinburgh, where he studied German and got his wings through the school’s air squadron. He was living in Germany as an exchange student when World War II erupted, and was briefly arrested and interrogated by the Nazi SS before being set free across the Swiss border. He returned home and enlisted in the Fleet Air Arm, the flying branch of the British Royal Navy, and was soon stationed aboard the 5,600-ton escort carrier HMS Audacity. A natural pilot, Brown shot down two German Fw 200 Condors while protecting Allied shipping convoys, but he was later left bobbing in the chilly waters of the Atlantic after Audacity was torpedoed and sunk by an enemy U-boat in December 1941. Brown was rescued after several hours in the water, one of just two survivors from an original group of 20.
In 1942, Brown began the most storied chapter of his career when he was put to work as a test pilot for a British research and development unit called the Royal Aircraft Establishment. He put the Miles M.20 fighter through its paces, but after his superiors took note of his skill, he was reassigned and tasked with helping improve the highly hazardous practice of landing planes on aircraft carriers. “My life was one long stint of launching and landing,” he later wrote in his memoir “Wings on My Sleeve.” “In one case I did 112 in a row on one ship.” Brown’s death-defying work and keen insights proved crucial to the design of Allied carriers, deck catapults and arrester gear. He would eventually chalk up 2,407 deck landings—a record that still stands today. In December 1945, while piloting a de Havilland Sea Vampire, he became the first man in history to land a jet plane on an aircraft carrier.
As World War II progressed, Brown took up a merry-go-round of aviation posts for the Allies. He trained Canadian pilots in deck landings; investigated methods of thwarting German V-1 rocket attacks; and helped U.S. Lt. General Jimmy Doolittle and the Army Air Forces test out the P-51 Mustang fighter, which was subsequently adopted as the main bomber escort in Europe. With captured aircraft constantly falling into Allied hands, he also conducted test flights on Axis fighters such as the Italian Macchi C.205 Veltro and the German Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Following the Allied victory in the spring of 1945, Brown even traveled to Germany to seek out Luftwaffe aircraft. “I was shocked by what we found,” he later said in the 2014 documentary “Britain’s Greatest Pilot: The Extraordinary Story of Captain ‘Winkle’ Brown.” “They were so far ahead.” Brown would go on to pilot more than 50 German planes including a memorable flight in the rocket-powered Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet. “The noise it made was absolutely thunderous, and it was like being in charge of a runaway train,” he told reporters in 2015. “Everything changed so rapidly and I really had to have my wits about me.”
Brown’s trips to Germany gave him a front row seat to the collapse of Hitler’s Third Reich. He was on the scene for the 1945 liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where more than 50,000 prisoners had been killed in the Holocaust. “There I saw for myself the piled dead, the still open graves,” he later wrote. “I tried to speak to some of the silent, shuffling ghosts of men, in their striped rags. They would listen, staring dully at the ground, then step aside and move on.” Because he was fluent in German, Brown also personally interrogated several high-ranking figures including Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring and Dr. Wernher von Braun, the aerospace engineer who later helped design the Saturn V rocket for NASA.
In the years after World War II, Brown continued his work as a test flier and added even more machines to his overcrowded pilot’s log. He flew the Avro Tudor I, Britain’s first pressurized airliner, and later experimented with Chinook helicopters and the jet-powered F-86 Sabre while on exchange duty in the United States. He left active duty in 1970 and quit flying for good in 1994, but before then he piloted 487 different aircraft, a Guinness World Record. WWII historian James Holland told the Washington Post that the record, along with Brown’s 2,407 deck landings, “will never be equaled, not in a million years.”
Brown experienced at least 11 different crashes during his career including one in which bailed out of a Hawker Tempest after its engine seized and caught fire. In another, he ditched a Grumman Martlet into Scotland’s Firth of Forth while Winston Churchill looked on. Though renowned for his calm demeanor and intense preparation and study, he also credited his longevity as a test pilot to his small frame, which earned him the nickname “Winkle” from his fellow aviators. “My height—I’m only 5’ 7’’—saved me because there were occasions I would have lost my legs in crashes,” He told BBC Radio 4 in 2013. “I would put my legs under the seat and curl up like a little ball in the cockpit.”
After retiring from flying, Brown worked as the chief executive of the British Helicopter Advisory Board. He also served as president of the Royal Aeronautical Society, wrote books and articles, and gave lectures into his 90s. Before his death on February 21, he received several royal recognitions and awards including a 1970 appointment as a commander of the Order of the British Empire. In paying tribute to Brown, Royal Navy Admiral Sir George Zambellas said, “The Fleet Air Arm may have lost one of its finest and best-known pilots, but British aviation has lost something even greater—the most accomplished test pilot of his generation and perhaps of all time, and a huge advocate of military aviation.”