Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown has died at the age of 97. This remarkable man flew 487 different types of aircraft, made 2,407 deck landings at sea and 2,721 catapult launches. The odds on those achievements ever being equalled are decidedly slim.
Brown’s talent for aviation was spotted by none other than Ernst Udet, the World War 1 fighter ‘ace’, who met the 17-year-old Brown in 1936 when his father took him to witness the Olympic Games in Berlin. Udet, the greatest air display pilot of the 1920s and 1930s, took the teenager up and threw him around the sky – noting that he was completely calm and attentive throughout.
Brown did indeed learn to fly and he returned to Germany as a student teacher, where he was briefly detained upon the outbreak of World War 2 before being allowed to drive his MG Magnette back to Britain.
During the war, Brown volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm and saw active service piloting the Grumman Martlet (a ‘rebadged’ F4F Wildcat), in defence the Atlantic convoys until his ship, HMS Audacity, was sunk in late 1941. He was one of only two aircrew to survive the ordeal and, once back on dry land, became a leading light of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, evaluating all manner of aircraft.
As a result of this job, Brown’s log book featured every major combat aircraft of the Second World War including gliders, fighters, bombers, airliners, amphibians, flying boats, helicopters jets and rocket-propelled aircraft. As the war in Europe drew to a close, Brown was attached to the Enemy Aircraft Flight, dispatched to evaluate the latest technology being produced in the Third Reich for potential future use.
It was while in this role that Brown’s German language skills were seconded to interviewing some of the most significant Nazis in captivity, including Josef Kramer ‘the Beast of Belsen’ and Irma Grese, ‘the Beautiful Beast’. It was while working among these killers that Brown identified a detainee who claimed to be called Heinrich Hitzinger but was in fact none other than Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS.
After the war, Brown continued to work with new aviation technologies, including making the first deck landings by a jet and by an aircraft with tricycle undercarriage. He went on to become a leading light in the global aerospace industry, then a long-serving author and public speaker who was still appearing in person and in media interviews until late in 2015. And now the story ends: we shall not see his like again.