More than just a record holder.
Yesterday I heard the sad news of the death of Captain Eric Brown. It was just a short two or three lines on the radio but later it did make to TV news saying Eric “Winkle” Brown, the world record holder for the most aircraft types flown, had died. I thought how sad it was that although his death made the news the news editors thought it appropriate not to mention why this man was as important in the history of our country and aviation as a whole. I dare say the majority of people seeing those reports or reading this post are asking themselves the question Eric Brown, who? Let me explain, I first heard of him was when as a teenager I found his book in a cupboard at home. To this day I don’t know who actually owned that book but I started reading it and decided I should finish it. At the time I wanted to be an aircraft engineer and this was a book written by a test pilot, and written in a way that you didn’t have to be a pilot to understand or enjoy it. Captain Brown was a Second World War pilot who was probably more pivotal in the outcome of the war than he will ever be given credit for. He did take part in aerial battles in the skies over Britain and from aircraft carriers but for a lot of the war and after he was a test pilot. AS a member of the Fleet Air Arm he help develop technology and techniques to improve safety for carrier deck landings. If it was flown by the RAF or Feet Air Arm during this time, he will have tested it at some point. Whether it was a new aircraft type or variant or just a small modification, Captain Brown will have been involved in the flight testing. This work didn’t finish with the end of the war and he flew many captured German aircraft. If we got our hands on a flyable German aircraft Captain Brown flew it and evaluated it. The only exception to this was the Natter, which he himself considered too dangerous. This was just a sound decision, very dangerous to fly but would probably not yield any information worth the risk. Test pilots of this age where always the first to find out if the designers had got their calculations right, no testing with computer programmes or simulators as they do today. Test pilot was a much more risky profession back then. So when the opportunity to fly a German ME-163 Komet came up, knowing this rocket powered aircraft was could only be landed as a glider on skids not wheels and only once the fuel had run out, he flew it. Reasons for the danger being is as undercarriage is heavy it was on a detachable bogies which fell away on take-off and if there was so much as a cup of fuel left in the tanks it would exploded on landing. The pilot had no way of knowing if there was any fuel left once the engines cut out, the pilot just landed and hoped. Although knowing that explosion on landing was the main cause of death for German Komet pilots, he thought it was worth the risk and joined an exclusive club of those who survived flying the Komet. He went on, well into the jet age to set the record that he is remembered for, 487 different aircraft types flown. A record that will probably never be broken. It is impossible to say how many lives have been saved by the recommendations made by test pilots of his era but it must be a considerable number.
I spent many years in the RAF as an Aircraft Electrical and Avionic Technician and worked with many RAF, Naval and a few British Army pilots not to mention British Commonwealth and US pilots, none of whom gave me the impression that they really cared or really understood how the aircraft they flew worked as much as I got the impression from his book that Eric Brown did. I don’t feel he or any of his wartime test pilot colleagues will ever get the recognition they deserve, but if you ever get a chance to read “Wings on my Sleeve” I recommend you do.