A giant called Winkle

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.


Eric “Winkle” Brown unveils his bust at the Fleet Air Arm Museum


VE Day

It is the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe day. In Britain things are a little less frenetic than they have been for other recent anniversaries such as the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the 100th anniversary of the declaration of World War 1 – in part because of the General Election.

It is a time to reflect.

Sadly for many, the participation of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Avro Lancaster in any commemorations has been stymied by a fire in Number 4 engine. Fortunately, although airborne, it was able to get home to Coningsby where the flames were put out and the long, arduous task of assessing and repairing the damage can begin.

BBMF Lancaster will be forced to miss some key events - but thankfully survived this scare

BBMF Lancaster will be forced to miss some key events – but thankfully survived this scare

Here at the S&G, these major anniversaries are often a reminder of the men who flew out in bombers. In the early part of the war, losses were borderline outrageous as crews flew in outdated or outclassed machinery such as the Fairey Battle, Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley and Handley Page Hampden.

Even by January 1943, when the mighty Lancaster and Mosquito handed huge advances to their crews, tour lengths were in the main set still at 200 hours and the chance of completing one tour was 16% in the heavy bomber Squadrons, 18% for medium bomber Squadrons, and 13% for twin-engine intruder and bomber reconnaissance Squadrons.

Those sort of odds hardly bear thinking about – and in many cases they were significantly worse. Flying a Bristol Blenheim in 1940-41 was undoubtedly the job with the worst prospects of all. Often being deployed on anti-shipping duties over the Atlantic and Mediterranean, they would fly at mast height over the open sea, leap-frog the target through a blizzard of anti-aircraft fire and simply hope for the best.

With no margin for error, battle damage inevitably meant crashing. If in rare cases the crash itself was survivable, the odds of rescue were slender to say the least.

Low flying Blenheims break away from the target (courtesy IWM)

Low flying Bristol Blenheims break away from the target (courtesy IWM)

The war diary of 107 Squadron based in Malta recalls that in the course of 18 days during October 1941 a total of 21 missions was flown. Total sorties numbered 88 with the loss of five aircraft, all on anti-shipping strikes (two lost by collision and the other three to enemy action),making the loss rate on these sorties one in seven.

One pilot of that time, Ron Gillman, wrote a very moving account of his Mediterranean tour in the book The Ship Hunters, in which he describes two months with 107 Squadron in Malta after which his battle-scarred aircraft was the last remaining of the entire squadron by the time he left the island.

With that in mind, therefore, here is a little film of the Blenheim with which to mark today’s anniversary.

Major Savage’s Sky-Writing Aeroplane

One of the very few genuine S.E.5a fighters left in the world is this one, which has been dangling from the rafters of the Science Museum in London since 1939. But a fighter with no guns and a civilian livery always has a tale to tell…

A unique survivor: the Science Museum’s SE5a

In the days immediately before World War 1 an accidental discovery was made: if low viscosity oil inadvertently found its way into a hot exhaust it would vapourize, creating a vast and dense cloud of white smoke without any real detriment to the aircraft. In these early days of flight, any such discovery was investigated for its possible usefulness in war – in this case smoke signals to ground troops or a defensive ‘fog’ to confuse attackers.

An aspiring aviation engineer at the time was one John Clifford* Savage, born in 1891 and apprenticed to Claude Grahame-White in 1909. Savage had a flair for the theatrical and broke off his engineering career in order to become manager and agent to B.C. Hucks, the first Englishman to loop the loop.

It was not until the early days of hard-won peace that the idea of making smoke trails was revived. During the war, Savage had been a lieutenant in the wartime Royal Naval Flying Service, rising to become a major in the new Royal Air Force, but with the onset of peace he was wondering what to do with his future.

He tried his hand at being a journalist, writing for Flight magazine under the nom-de-plume of Oiseau Bleu but that lacked a certain je ne sais quoi

By 1921  ‘Mad Jack’ Savage had revisited the idea of producing smoke and experimented with making first shapes and then letters in the air… and the art of  skywriting was born.The entrepreneurial airman went in search of an aircraft fit for the job, and settled on the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a.

G-EBIB is a reminder of Savage’s entrepreneurial skill

This was not the most agile fighter of the war but unlike the Sopwith Camel it had a Wolseley Viper V8 engine that was easy to fix and which had a capacious pair of exhaust pipes. In addition they were in plentiful supply – more than 2500 of them had been sitting around since the end of the war and were available to buy at what amounted to pocket money prices.

Savage snaffled up 33 of these unwanted old fighters and converted them to his bespoke skywriting specification at his Hendon premises. When selling his services in later years, Savage declared that, as a wartime fighter, the S.E.5a was ‘designed and built to be eight times stronger than is needed to endure the stresses of sky-writing’.

The rechristened ‘Savage Wolseley S.E.5a’ had extended exhaust pipes that linked together through a hole cut in the tail and, suitably lagged with asbestos, this modification acted as the nib in Savage’s aerial pen. The smoke-generating oil was stored in front of the cockpit where the machine gun previously sat and delivered by a new control on the instrument panel while the pilot’s headrest was removed in order to give him a better rearward view of his handiwork. Finally the old drab camouflage of dark olive upper surfaces and cream linen below was replaced by an all-over silver finish.

The Savage Wolsley SE5a sky-writer

Savage’s inventiveness caused a sensation when his skywriting S.E.5a made its very public debut at the 1922 Epsom Derby. A bumper crowd for one of the biggest racing weekends of the year was enthralled as the silver speck 10,000 feet above them spelt out DAILY MAIL in vast white letters which, the newspaper later claimed, was ‘the greatest single development in outdoor advertising’ and that ‘everyone within an area of a hundred square miles – and there were millions – gazed spellbound at this fascinating sight.’

It was certainly a smash. Among those in the VIP enclosure at Epsom was none other than the leading novelist of the day, Virginia Woolfe, who used the occasion as the opening segment in her next book, Mrs. Dalloway.

Flushed with this success, Savage shipped one of his aircraft to the USA. With another ex-RAF pilot, Cyril Turner, at the controls, Savage’s S.E.5a carefully wrote ‘HELLO USA’ in the sky above New York. The following day the silver speck reappeared, writing: ‘CALL VANDERBILT 7100’. The number put potential advertisers through to the hotel where Savage was staying – and the demand for his $1000 service was insatiable.

Savage’s business thrived on both sides of the Atlantic. His 33 fighter aircraft were equipped with air-to-ground radio in order for him to give personal instructions to the men at the controls while they laboured away. The biggest European success for Savage’s skywriters came in 1928 when he was employed by German pharmaceutical company Henkel to promote its Persil brand of detergents. The response was swift and impressive.

Persil was Savage's biggest European client

Persil was Savage’s biggest European client

The Persil script stood an heroic 1.5km tall at the ‘P’ and ‘l’ and 1km tall for the ‘ersi’. The six letters stretched fully 7km across the skyline and 45 million cubic feet of smoke had to be generated in order to make the letters. The pilots also had to fly their route in reverse to make sure that it could be read from below, requiring them to rehearse the complex aerobatic moves until they became second nature:

The map for a Persil skywriter

The map for a Persil skywriter

The campaign was such a success that in many European countries a cloudless sky was called a ‘Persil sky’ right up until the 1960s. Whenever there was a sunny afternoon from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, people still half expected a flashing silver dot to appear and make its magical graffiti above them.

Savage stayed in business until 1939, although the fleet of S.E.5a’s grew tired and old and Savage invented a night time alternative to using smoke when he created a searchlight advertising beam to display words and logos – doubtless a great inspiration to the creators of Batman! One by one the old fighters were pensioned off – usually going to a breaker’s yard, but not always.

In 1934 two of his aircraft, registered G-EBIA and G-EBIC went to new homes- their first stops on a journey which today sees them, resplendent in their wartime specification, as mainstays of the RAF Museum, Hendon and The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden – although more of them later.

By 1 June 1939 only one aircraft was left in Savage’s keeping, so he sat down with what might well have been his last sheet of headed paper and dispatched the following note to the Science Museum in South Kensington:

Dear sir,

I have one genuine War time S.E.5a aeroplane left out of a considerable number I used to own.

I really cannot remember whether the Museum has a specimen of this really rather historic type of aeroplane, and if it has not I will be only too pleased to present to the Museum the machine to which I have referred above.

Yours faithfully

J.C. Savage

Savage offers his last S.E.5a to posterity

Savage offers his last S.E.5a to posterity

This kind offer was of course accepted, and so G-EBIB has been preserved intact, not only as an example of this legendary fighter of World War 1 but also as an icon of the advertising industry. As for Major Savage, he had already added another invention to his CV – the crop spraying aeroplane, which found tremendous use in the USA and Australia in particular.

As war approached he redoubled his efforts in developing the searchlight technology which, although outlawed in Britain, had proved to be hugely lucrative in the Americas. Founding Savage and Parsons Ltd as a pure engineering firm, he developed an array of sound locators and searchlights, including the Leigh Light anti-submarine technology, which was to prove vital in World War 2.

Jack Savage died in September 1945 safe in the knowledge that his life’s work had been worthwhile and mourned by almost the entire global aviation fraternity. Of the six genuine S.E.5a aircraft still in existence, three are ex-Savage and while the silver example which hangs in the shadowy reaches of the Science Museum might not be the most enticing at first glance, it might well be worth a second look…

*corrected 17/10/15

Searching out Spitfires #1

I’ve been to a lot of places to find the aircraft that I love so I’m going to start sticking up the results in new sections on here. Might as well start off with the aircraft that 99.9% of the world wants to see… the Spitfire.

This is the ‘high back’ LF.Mk.XVI serial TB752, the ‘Manston Spitfire’.

The 'Manston Spitfire' stands proud in Kent

The ‘Manston Spitfire’ stands proud in Kent

She was built at Castle Bromwich in 1944 but held back until March 1945 before reaching an operational unit – 66 Squadron at RAF Linton-on-Ouse. Just days after arriving she was badly damaged in a landing accident, rebuilt and sent to Diepholz in Germany where she joined 403 ‘Wolf’ Squadron, RCAF and shot down three aircraft.

In peacetime ‘752’ suffered a lot of neglect until she was dragged out, tarted up a bit and stuck on a pole as gate guardian at the celebrated Battle of Britain station, RAF Manston, in 1955. The first move to save the old girl from the ravages of the British weather came in 1978, when a year-long 15,000-hour restoration saw her emerge in the condition you see now, in her wartime markings with 403 Squadron.

After two years of vigorous fundraising a permanent indoor home was completed for her and the Manston museum got its star exhibit. It’s a great little museum, with very kind and helpful volunteers dotted in every corner. Well worth a day out in the heart of ‘Battle of Britain country’. For more info go to the Mantson Spitfire & Hurricane Memorial Museum site.

The Manston Spitfire represents the type's long association with this airfield

The Manston Spitfire represents the type’s long association with this airfield