Captain Eric Brown – a personal reflection

There’s very little I can add to the many tributes to the incomparable Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, written by those far better placed than me to assess the great man’s career. As I had the privilege to meet him and speak to him on a number of occasions, I wanted to offer a brief personal reflection on the sad loss for the aviation world and the country that his death represents.

One of the things that has always struck me about Captain Brown’s career is that it contained so many highlights that on their own would be notable, never mind as part of a career that incorporates many, many such achievements. Most know Brown as a test pilot, and it is undoubtedly as a test pilot that his greatest contribution was made, but his combat career was itself remarkable. Again, many people have heard about his time with 802 Squadron flying Grumman Martlets, helping develop the head-on attack, and surviving the sinking of HMS Audacity. Fewer are familiar with the flights that Brown undertook with 801 Squadron, when he had only just finished training and before he had even been assigned to a frontline squadron. This was the reason I had for first speaking to Captain Brown, nearly ten years ago now.

Eric Winkle Brown
Captain Eric Brown delivering a talk for the Royal Aeronautical Society

In late 1940, 801 Squadron was flying the Blackburn Skua fighter/dive-bomber. The Skua was a decent dive-bomber but its ‘fighter’ role was secondary and it was never meant to go up against modern, land-based single-seaters. Brown was temporarily drafted in due to losses, which gives some idea of what he and the other aircrews on the squadron were being called upon to do. The squadron had flown during the Norwegian Campaign of Spring and Summer 1940, when British forces attempted to help Norway repel the German invasion. They failed, but 801 Squadron was charged with keeping up the attack on German forces in Norway after the Allies had been ejected. This involved sending the slow, vulnerable Skuas all the way to Norway from Hatston in Orkney and back.

‘That was a tight trip for distance,’ Captain Brown told me – which was, as it turns out, a characteristic piece of understatement. The trip from Hatston to Bergen was right on the edge of the Skua’s endurance, about four and a half hours, allowing precious little for any combat at the destination. On occasion, the Skuas were escorted – if it can really be called that – by RAF Blenheim long-range fighters, but on this trip it was just the Skuas.

The squadron successfully reached Bergen and bombed some oil tanks, but then, in Captain Brown’s words, ‘collected a shoal of Me109s, and they pursued us along the fjord’.

This was only a couple of months after an attempt to dive-bomb the battle cruiser Scharnhorst had led to more than half the attacking force being shot down, so the 801 Squadron crews must have known what their chances were. A pilot who was shot down in that mission and spent the rest of the war as a PoW told me that with a bomb attached the Skua ‘was useless against Me109s – even one’. This was no exaggeration. The Skua was over 100mph slower than the Messerschmitt, far less handy, and had very little armour. Even freed of its bomb, the aircraft was at a severe disadvantage.

Captain Brown described to me, with no hint of embellishment or ‘line shooting’, how he’d escaped the Messerschmitt’s attentions, initially by clinging to the wall of the fjord at very low level, and eventually by actuating the dive brakes, causing the Skua to slow dramatically and almost causing a collision. Other pilots had managed this successfully in the past, but it’s telling that on his first brush with the enemy, and flying with a back-seater he was unfamiliar with, he had the presence of mind to pull the trick and make it work. ‘He left us pretty well alone after that,’ Captain Brown said. ‘He fired on us, and he hit us before he broke away, but not very much.’ The modesty and sangfroid shines through.

I spoke to Captain Brown once or twice over the next few years, and heard him speak a couple of times too. This was always a great pleasure, as he was not just a fascinating man but a great public speaker too – largely by letting his knowledge and experience tell the story without any need for bombast. His natural charm made him instantly likeable and won over every audience I ever saw him address.

Eric Winkle Brown
Captain Brown seemed to have time for everyone who wanted to speak to him

The next cause I had to interview him was nearly eight years later, during my work on the biography of one of his contemporary test pilots, Duncan Menzies. Although they were both test pilots, and both concerned with naval aircraft, I wasn’t confident that they would have come into contact very much – Menzies was, by that stage in his career, a production test pilot for Fairey at Stockport, Brown was with the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. I mentioned Menzies during a chat at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, and to my surprise, Brown not only knew Menzies but remembered a fair bit about him. He asked me to telephone him at home in a couple of weeks when we could go through his recollections in more detail.

This was another feature about Captain Brown. He didn’t hesitate to offer help and time to a virtually unknown author without there being anything in it for him. I can only imagine the demands on his time that there must have been, especially since the BBC TV documentary about him the previous month (due for repeat tomorrow at 7pm). And yet he gladly volunteered to assist. When the time came, we spoke for over an hour about his recollection of Duncan, and giving a valuable alternative perspective on the Fairey aircraft of the time. At the end of the conversation he told me to ring him again if there was anything occurred to me that I hadn’t asked him about. He was 95 at the time, and his memory can only be described as pin-sharp.

As I said earlier, there’s nothing I can add to the tributes – James Holland’s fantastic documentary, for one – and if anyone hasn’t read Brown’s fantastic books, Wings on my Sleeve, Wings of the Navy, Wings of the Luftwaffe etc etc – stop reading this now and go and read them.

These are just a couple of moments in Captain Brown’s life. And as I said earlier, so many of the things he has done would qualify his career for greatness by themselves. The record for deck landings and types flown, the work testing Luftwaffe types after the war, his contribution to the science of naval aviation… Not to mention interrogating Herman Goering and singing with the Glenn Miller orchestra!

First jet carrier landing
Captain Brown landing a de Havilland Sea Vampire aboard HMS Ocean in 1946, the first deck landing for a jet aircraft – see HMS Illustrious, Prototypes and Trials

I think for me, what stands out is his courage, and the very quiet, very modest way he expressed it. To take a couple of examples, there were times when he had to recreate conditions that had killed pilots, even caused their aircraft to break up. And yet he went ahead and carried out the tests. I’ve just submitted a manuscript to the publisher for a book on the Fairey Barracuda, which was one of these aircraft. Unexplained crashes were killing crews when the aircraft attempted to pull out after a steep dive, as they would have to do during a torpedo or dive-bombing attack. Some even ‘folded up’ in mid-air, as crews who witnessed the incidents described. Brown tested the aircraft, found some pretty scary handling characteristics, worked out what the problem was and allowed the Fleet Air Arm to avoid the problems in future. On another occasion, he took up one of the three DH108 transonic research aircraft (all of which eventually crashed, killing three test pilots) and replicated the flight to the edge of the feared ‘sound barrier’ that had killed Geoffrey de Havilland, surviving a violent pitch oscillation, recovering the aircraft and shedding a great deal of light on the circumstances of de Havilland’s death.

I can only add that I feel utterly privileged to have breathed the same air as such an amazing human being. In addition to writing about history, I also write fiction, and I can say with some confidence that if I attempted to write a fictional character who did a quarter of what Captain Eric Brown achieved, it would be laughed out as completely implausible.
Blue Skies, Captain.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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2 responses to “Captain Eric Brown – a personal reflection

  1. Fine and worthy tribute. Something about the deadpan calmness of test pilots that us mortals find so compelling. To keep an engineering eye to a problem which may kill you in a few seconds is not a skill which can be taught.

    I had never heard of the dive brake trick, pretty clever.

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