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Eric 'Winkle' Brown: The man who seemed not to notice danger

Eric Brown Image copyright Getty Images

Pilot Eric "Winkle" Brown holds two of the most startling records from the world of flying. And that's just a part of his extraordinary life.

Brown's exploits run through some of the most momentous events of world history. He was at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he interrogated Hermann Goering, helped liberate the Belsen concentration camp and by chance managed to sing with the Glenn Miller band.

But his greatest achievements were as a Royal Navy test pilot. He mastered deck landings in the face of tremendous danger. Now 95, he is a hero among military pilots who fly far more safely thanks to the techniques and technologies he helped test.

Flew 487 different aircraft

Image copyright Imperial War Museum
Image caption Eric Brown at the cockpit

Brown has flown 487 different types of aircraft - a current world record. Today's test pilots average fewer than 100 flights, says Rear Admiral Simon Charlier, former commander of the Fleet Air Arm. "Over 50 is deemed a large number. We can't imagine in this day and age how dangerous his job was."

"They didn't have the advantage of high-tech simulators. He just had to look at the aircraft and think what he was going to do with it", says Mark Bowman, chief test pilot at BAE Systems.

But aircraft Eric was testing were not just "difficult and novel to fly", they were also "genuinely and totally untested", says Charlier.

He will have been flying the aircraft with "the benefit of a slide rule, not a bank of computers as we have now," says Bowman.

Brown ensured he made lots of preparations for his flights. He survived so many of them thanks to his preparation and "incredible presence of mind", says the historian James Holland. The other pilots, "cavaliers of the sky, with a devil may care attitude would be out chasing girls and boozing. Eric wouldn't do any of that".

Image copyright Other
Image caption Brown is second right in this photo, taken in 1944

He was one of the first to attach notes to his leg, explains Holland. When you are testing so many aircraft you need to know "exactly which one you are flying".

Brown last flew in 1994. Giving flying up was like "drug withdrawal", he says.

World record for most aircraft carrier landings - 2,407

As a naval pilot you are sent off into the "big blue yonder", says Brown. And you are "not sure where your carrier is - maybe a hundred miles away somewhere in the ocean". Some planes never found their way back, lost out at sea because the carrier could not reveal its position.

Image copyright PA
Image caption A 1995 re-enactment of the first landing of a jet aircraft on an aircraft carrier

Brown says it was a game of Russian roulette as at one stage "we had one incident every nine landings".

When landing on a carrier, "you are essentially aiming for a small lay-by in the middle of a large lake", explains Bowman. "It is a three-dimensional problem through a fog, with none of the same visual references you get on land. It is one of the most demanding tasks you can do as a pilot."

Any kind of landing was difficult, but designers had yet to fit planes to the task. Much of what is now designed into planes to make carrier landings easier comes from Brown and his peers.

The US Navy were said to have given one man the specific job of breaking Brown's record. "To his everlasting credit he got up to 1,600 and then had a nervous breakdown," says Brown.

Fear is something test pilots have to deal with on a regular basis. Bowman says that they look for pilots who can "compartmentalise the job at hand from the rest of your emotions".

But for Brown fear was never an issue. "I react almost the opposite. If things are really difficult I go ice cold and my brain seems to go up a gear."

The Fleet Air Arm's most decorated living pilot

Image copyright Imperial War Museum

Captain Eric Melrose Brown CBE, DSC, AFC, KCVSA, PhD Hon FRAeS, RN is his full title. Charlier says Brown is one of the only pilots who - on top of all his campaign medals - has the Distinguished Service Cross as well as the Air Force Cross. "That is highly unusual."

The fact "he is still alive and witness to all of this history is amazing", says Holland. He is "easily one of the top five aviators of all time and certainly the best British one".

But it was for the love of flying which Brown continued to test aircraft. "It is that passion, the thought required and the interest in aviation as a totally absorbing subject that he would have strived for," says Holland. "Not the medals. He will have seen his colleagues in harm's way and wanted to minimise that."


Desert Island Discs

Image caption Eric Brown on Desert Island Discs
  • Programme was devised and originally presented by Roy Plomley; other presenters include Sue Lawley and Kirsty Young
  • 3,000th episode will be broadcast this week after 72 years on air
  • "Castaways" are allowed eight discs, one book (plus the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare) and one luxury - Alfred Hitchcock asked for a continental railway timetable; John Cleese asked for a "stuffed Michael Palin"
  • Beethoven's Symphony No 9 in D minor is the most chosen piece of music
  • Some guests have appeared more than once. - Sir David Attenborough has featured four times

BBC - Desert Island Discs - Home


One of two people who survived the sinking of HMS Audacity

Image copyright Imperial War Museum
Image caption HMS Audacity - Brown was one of only two survivors after its sinking

Only Brown and a fellow pilot survived when the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat on 21 December 1941.

He was "blessed with clear thinking, an analytical mind and rarely got scared" says Holland. He would see immediately how the situation was going to play out and would act accordingly.

Brown says he survived because of the type of jacket he had on. The puffy "Mae West" lifejacket kept him and his fellow pilot upright in the cold waters of the Bay of Biscay. But the 22 seamen they were tied to, with just inflated tubes around their waists, drifted into a hypothermia-induced sleep, fell forward and drowned. "It was terrible. We were just cutting people off," Brown recalls.

He was very well "mentally and physically equipped to be adrift at sea", says Holland. As they died one by one, he knew to keep awake and to keep clinging on to the buoy.

Interrogated Hermann Goering

Image copyright Getty Images

His fluent German and expertise on aircraft meant Brown interviewed many important figures during the war.

He provided an "absolutely unique service," says Charlier. He was picked to interview captured Germans to "find out what it was like to fly one of their aircraft, what tactics they used and how they trained". His intellect and language skills at that time were "extraordinary".

Brown would "talk to them as an airman", says Holland. "He didn't try and snarl at them. He spoke their language, knew the right questions to ask and got good stuff as a result."

The so-called beast of Belsen, Irma Grese, was the "worst person I have ever met", Brown says. But Herman Goering was "quite charismatic in many ways". He was very "straightforward" and answered all his questions. "I asked him, 'How did you see the outcome of the Battle of Britain?' and he said, 'A draw'."

He even interrogated Heinrich Himmler who, under forged papers, called himself Henrich Hitzinger. "Eventually he got mad with this thing, and he said, 'I'm Heinrich Himmler.' The warrant officer said, 'Yes and I'm Julius Caesar.' He didn't believe him at all."


The Magazine takes wing


The 3,000th edition of Desert Island Discs, featuring Eric "Winkle" Brown, is broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 09:00-09:45 GMT on 14 November - or catch up on BBC iPlayer

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