A life remembered

In the current (May) issue of Spaceflight we remembered the life of Capt Eric Brown, who, among many other achievements, was the only British pilot to fly a winged rocket-plane, achieved when he tested the Messerschmitt Me-163 shortly after the Second World War.

That obituary was a shortened version of the extended write-up which was compiled by Alan Marlow, reproduced below in full:

Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown, Britain’s only rocket pilot – 21 January 1919 – 21 February 2016

By Alan Marlow

A-life-remembered---Captain-Eric-Winkle-BrownBy any measure you care to use, the life led by Captain Eric Melrose Brown, who died in February, was a truly extraordinary one.

Eric was born in Edinburgh in 1919. His father had learned to fly in the Royal Flying Corps in the closing stages of World War 1 and although he did not see combat, Eric’s father remained a passionate aviator. When he was around 8 years old Eric’s father took him flying, sitting on his lap in the open cockpit of a Gloster Gauntlet. It was an excursion which was to spark Eric’s lifelong love of flying, although it was an experience which had to be kept secret from his mother, who was vehemently opposed to Eric’s father “infecting” the boy with the flying “bug”. Sadly, Eric’s mother was to die in his early teens, an event which cemented the deep bond between father and son.

Eric’s father was a member of an international friendship group of ex World War 1 flyers and as a goodwill gesture, in 1936 he was invited to attend the Berlin Olympics. Being a keen and accomplished athlete, Eric now a seventeen year old schoolboy accompanied his father. It was an event which was to change his life.

In addition to the athletics, a number of flying exhibitions were staged. It was at one of these that for the first time, Eric met General Ernst Udet and the pioneering aviatrix Hanna Reitsch, two individuals who would play a mojor part in his life.  Udet was a brilliant aerobatic pilot and the highest scoring surviving flying ace from World War 1. In the years between the wars he had been a stunt pilot and barnstormer in the USA. By 1936, his old squadron commander, Herman Goering had persuaded him to become the head of technical development for the newly formed Luftwaffe, a political role for which he was temperamentally unsuited (overwhelmed by the role Udet committed suicide in 1941). Hanna Reitsch was a world champion glider pilot and under Udet’s patronage, and in 1936 she was pursuing a career as a test pilot, a role which would turn her into a national icon in Nazi Germany.

Udet seemed to immediately take to the young Eric Brown and after introducing him to Hanna Reitsch (who he recalls took virtually no notice of him), Udet offered to take Eric for a flight. The flight was Eric’s first introduction to the world of aerobatics with Udet putting the little Bucker Jungmann through, according to Eric, “every manoeuvre known to man”.  Udet approached the field inverted, and only turned the aircraft right way up again at the last moment prior to landing. When Eric climbed out the cockpit Udet roared with laughter slapped him on the back saying “Hals-und Beinbruch Eric…,” broken neck and broken leg” an old fighter pilots greeting!  On the drive away from the airfield, Udet set Eric two goals, to learn to fly and to learn to speak German, then he could come back to see him.

Having fulfilled both of Udet’s criteria by learning to speak German as part of a degree in modern languages, and learning to fly in the University Air Squadron,  in 1938, Eric returned to Germany as an exchange student and one evening found his way to Udet’s Berlin flat to renew their acquaintance. Udet maintained an “open house” and  during his numerous visits there, the young Eric would meet such leading lights in German Aviation as Adolf Galland, Werner Molders and of course Hanna Reitsch. One “party game” Eric vividly remembered playing in Udet’s flat was shooting at a target with a small calibre pistol. The real challenge was that the target was aimed at over the shoulder looking in a mirror. On numerous occasions the target was missed completely and chunks of plaster blown out of the wall, which seemed not to worry Udet in the slightest.  While he was in Berlin visiting Udet, Eric witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of Hanna Reitsch demonstrating the Focke Wulf FW 61 Achgelis, the world first practical helicopter, inside the Deutschlandhalle exhibition hall during the 1938 Berlin Motor Show.

When war broke out in September 1939, Eric was spending the weekend in Munich. Arrested and incarcerated in the local police station, Eric was relieved to find that he was being deported from Germany in an exchange agreement with German students studying in Britain. Having been driven to a remote border crossing with Switzerland, he was told he was free to go and take his MG Magnet sports car with him. When he asked why they were letting him take his car he was told they had no spares for MG’s in Germany!

On returning to Britain, Eric reported for duty with the RAF, but having found them seemingly lukewarm about recruiting new pilots, Eric transferred to the Fleet Air Arm. After training, Eric found himself flying Wildcat fighters, on board HMS Audacity, the first of a class of tiny aircraft carriers assigned to protect navel convoys. In December 1941, Audacity was torpedoed in the Bay of Biscay. Eric found himself and his Flight Commander “Sheepy” Lamb, together around twenty sailors adrift in the bitterly cold Atlantic waters. When they were finally rescued hours later, only Eric and his flight commander had survived the ordeal. The sailors, with only lifebelts to cling onto, had drowned when they fell unconscious. Eric and Lamb’s heads had been kept out of the water by their Mae West life preservers.

After a month’s survivors leave, Eric was told that the Captain of Audacity, Commander McKendrick (who had died in the sinking) had in his reports described Eric as, “having a natural flair for deck landing which should be exploited”. Consequently, Eric found himself in Arbroth, checking out the deck landing gear on new carriers and assessing the potential of different aircraft to be used for carrier work. As such, Eric began to amass an incredible number of deck landings and ultimately would go on to hold the world record for carrier landings (2407), a total which will almost certainly never be exceeded.

This was also the start of Eric’s extraordinary career in test flying. During that career he would fly not only British and American aircraft, but he would also test and assess captured Italian, German, and Japanese aircraft. He would also get the opportunity to test Soviet aircraft.  One of the first projects he was involved with, almost ended in a very public disaster. In an attempt to provide close air support for merchant ships, a system for firing aircraft off of ships using a rocket sled was being tested. On one occasion the system was being demonstrated to Winston Churchill himself.

The rockets fired and the Spitfire, with Eric at the controls, shot off along the short launch track. Unfortunately on this occasion (because of a mistake by the ground crew), the sled failed to detach and Eric left the launch track with around a ton of “ironmongery” still hanging underneath the aircraft. For a few seconds, it looked as though the aircraft would fly straight into the ground, but somehow Eric managed to shake the launch sled off and successfully land the aircraft. Churchill was, Eric said, blissfully unaware of the drama that just played out in front of him.

As part of Farnborough’s “High Speed Flight” section, on one occasion, Eric was testing a high octane fuel in a Hawker Tempest, pushing the aircraft to its limits to assess whether it would be able to catch V1 flying bombs. At 4000 feet, the engine seized up and caught fire. Successfully baling out, Eric came down safely in a pond, only to find his escape barred by a massive bull. Fearing to confront the animal, the emergency services waited until the farmer could be found who, according to Eric “ simply walked up to the beast, said come on Ferdinand, grabbed hold of the ring through his nose and led him away like a big dog!” Eric always swore that as he was led away, the bull looked back and winked at him!

Despite still only being in his mid-twenties, his wide experience, indisputable flying skill and fluency in German, made Eric an obvious choice to be put in charge of Britain’s Enemy Aircraft Unit. As the allied forces closed in on Berlin in 1945, the Enemy Aircraft Unit was tasked with acquiring and testing enemy aircraft and equipment, and detaining and interrogating enemy personnel. As such he had the opportunity to fly what at the time were some of the most advanced aircraft in the world, including the ME262 Jet fighter and the ME163 rocket powered interceptor. Eric described the experience of flying the ME163 as extraordinary and that he “had the feeling that the aircraft was always one step ahead of me!” The ME163 was without doubt the most dangerous aircraft (for the pilot) of WW2. The T Stoff and C Stoff fuels fuels were incredibly volatile and many pilots were killed when the aircraft inexplicably exploded. The aircraft exhausted it’s fuel after a few minutes and landings had to be made at high speed and unpowered, a challenging undertaking which left many pilots with spinal injuries. Eric flew the ME163 both as a glider (after being towed to altitude by a tug) and under rocket power, what was known as a “sharp start”. As such, Eric Brown remains the only British pilot ever to have flown a purely rocket powered aircraft. For many years, Eric remained very discreet about the fact that he had flown the ME163 under rocket power. At a time when many Germans would still have considered collaborating with the British as treason, Eric made a promise to the ground crew who assisted with the preparation and fuelling of the aircraft that he would not publicise the fact that they had helped him. It was a promise he kept until the last of them died in the late 1990’s.

In addition to the acquisition and testing of aircraft and equipment, Eric also took on the interrogation of captured German personnel, many of them very high up amongst the Nazi hierarchy. Herman Goering he described as being surprisingly co-operative and cheerful, glad to be talking to a fellow aviator, which puzzled Eric considering what was ahead of him. As it turned out, Goering was not prepared to allow himself to be hanged and ended his own life by taking a cyanide tablet.

Eric did not officially interrogate Heinrich Himmler, however, he did speak to him and asked him why the head of the V2 programme, Werner Von Braun had been arrested and imprisoned? Himmler told him that Von Braun was too interested in “playing at his hobby of sending rockets to the Moon rather than developing the rocket as a weapon”. While he didn’t interrogate Werner Von Braun himself, (he acknowledges that he didn’t have any specialised knowledge about rockets) Eric did act as an interpreter during Von Braun’s interrogation by the British in London. He describes Von Braun as probably being the most self-confidant man he ever met, his attitude during the whole proceedings being “aren’t you lucky, you’ve got me – the biggest prize of all”.

One experience which had a profound effect on Eric was his visit to the newly liberated Belsen Concentration Camp. The sight of the emaciated inmates, the piles of rotting corpses and the unbelievable stench of death were experiences that would haunt Eric for the rest of his life. The senior officer at Belsen, Brigadier Glynn Hughs, hearing that Eric spoke German fluently, asked him if he could spare a couple of days to assist in the interrogation of the German Commandant Josef Kramer and his female assistant Irma Griese. Eric described Irma Griese as one of the most appalling creatures he ever met, having a reputation for unspeakable cruelty to the inmates of the camps she had been in. She is reputed to have made lampshades from the skins of the dead inmates at Auschwitz! Eric asked her if she had any regrets about the atrocities she had committed at which point she stood up, gave a Nazi salute and sat down again refusing to utter another word.

Perhaps the strangest of the interviews that Eric conducted was with his old acquaintance from pre-war Germany, Hanna Reitsch. Hanna had had an “interesting” war. Under Ernst Udet’s patronage, she had helped develop the Stuka dive bomber, tested a huge troop carrying glider called the “Gigant”, almost been killed testing the ME163 rocket fighter, and had proposed directly to Adolf Hitler, and tested, a crewed “suicide”  version of the V1 flying bomb. In the closing stages of the war, she had flown into Berlin and visited the Führerbunker with General Ritter Von Griem where they had been given cyanide tablets by Hitler himself for use should the necessity arise. Von Griem had used his suicide tablet rather than be indicted as a war criminal. When he interviewed her, Eric described Hanna as being in a “highly emotional state”, hardly surprising considering she had only recently learned that her father had shot her mother and her maid, Hanna’s sister and her three small children, then turned the gun on himself, rather than allow the family to fall into the hands of the Russians.

While Eric had the greatest admiration for Hanna as a flyer, he disliked her politics and never considered they were friends in the post war era. Consequently, he was surprised in the summer of 1979 to receive a rather rambling letter from her in which she spoke of the bond they had as flyers. She ended the letter, “what began in the bunker will now end in the bunker”. Hanna Reitsch died on 27th August 1979. Eric remained convinced that she had finally taken the cyanide tablet given to her by Adolf Hitler in the Berlin bunker in 1945, thirty four years earlier.

Even while he was conducting trials of captured enemy aircraft and interrogating German personnel, Eric was still involved in development and aircraft testing of new aircraft. On 4th December 1945, Eric became the first person in history to land a jet on an aircraft carrier when he successfully touched down on HMS Ocean in a De Havilland Vampire. Later on, he would take on a bizarre set of tests landing a Vampire on a rubber mat without the undercarriage down. The theory was that without the undercarriage, the aircraft would be able to carry a heavier weapons load and more aircraft could be stacked below the decks of an aircraft carrier. Eric had some serious mishaps during the testing but needless to say it was a system which never became operational.

If there was one project which was a source of enduring disappointment and frustration for Eric it was the Miles M52. In 1944, Eric was designated as the Chief pilot for a project to build a research aircraft capable of breaking the sound barrier. The Miles M52 was a jet powered aircraft with incredibly thin straight wings (nicknamed the “Gillette wings”) and an all moving “flying tail. Eric freely acknowledged that he had one huge advantage over his probably more experienced jet pilot colleagues, he was quite short and as such could fit more easily into the aircraft’s cramped ejectable cockpit. For reasons never fully explained, in 1946, with the aircraft completed and within months of flying, much to the chagrin of all involved, the government cancelled the project. Much of the data acquired in the Miles M52 project was made available to the Americans, who in 1947, flew the rocket powered X1 through the sound barrier, using the same flying tail  as would have been employed by the Miles M52. Eric remained convinced that had the project been allowed to continue, Britain would have broken the sound barrier in 1946, fully twelve months before the Americans.

Of course Britain’s interest in breaking the sound barrier did not end when the Miles M52 project was cancelled. Interest now moved to swept wing aircraft (a strategy partly prompted by the flights made by Eric in the swept wing ME262 and ME163’s). The experimental De Havilland DH108 Swallow, was based on a Vampire fuselage. The conventional wings had been replaced with a tailless delta wing configuration. However, there were very serious stability and control problems with the Swallow as it approached the speed of sound. On 26th September 1946 Geoffery De Havilland, the son of the founder of the De Havilland aircraft company (and brother of the Hollywood actress Olivia De Havilland), was killed when the Swallow he was flying broke up over Whitstable in Kent. De Havilland appeared to have been killed when his neck had broken while he was still in the aircraft.

Eric was tasked with taking up another prototype of the aircraft and repeating De Havilland’s flight profile to try to discover exactly what had happened. As he approached the speed of sound, the aircraft began to “porpoise” (bucking up and down) uncontrollably. By pure instinct he pulled gently out of the shallow dive and reduced the power thus regaining control. Post flight analysis indicated that Geoffery De Havilland had probably experienced the same oscillation and his neck had been broken when his head smashed against the canopy. Eric had survived because being shorter, he had had a few more seconds to resolve the problem before he too would have been rendered unconscious. Piloted by John Derry, the Swallow would eventually become the first British aircraft to break the sound barrier (in an almost vertical dive) in September 1948. Eric’s assessment of the Swallow, that it was a “a killer” was borne out by the fact that all three prototypes would crash killing their three pilots.

Eric would eventually go supersonic for the first time, not in a British aircraft, but in an American Sabre while on an exchange duty to the Navel Test Centre at Patuxent River in Maryland in the USA. While there, Eric would make the acquaintance of a young Navel pilot called Neil Armstrong. He would renew that acquaintance in 1971, two years after Armstrong had landed on the Moon when they were both testing aircraft at Cranfield, near Bedford in the UK. They would remain life-long friends thereafter.

Eric found himself in a number threatening situations during his career. He encountered one of the most dramatic when he was testing the jet powered SRA1 Flying Boat fighter in August 1949. When landing in the Solent, the aircraft struck a piece of semi-submerged timber and flipped over on it’s back. Struggling to reach the surface, Eric was only saved from drowning when Saunders Roe’s Chief Test Pilot Geoffery Tyson dived in and pulled him to the surface.

In the latter years of his time in the navy, Eric would undertake a number of different roles including Navel Attaché in Germany, acting as an Aide-de-Camp to the Queen and eventually becoming commander of the RNAS Station at Lossiemouth in Scotland. Eric finally retired from the navy in 1970 to become Chief Executive of the British Helicopter Advisory Board.

I was fortunate enough to meet Eric on a number of occasions and conducted two video interviews with him, one about his recollections of Hanna Reitsch, and one about his own life and career. I never found Eric anything less than warm, friendly, enthusiastic and unstinting with his time. Eric loved to share his anecdotes and experiences (of which there was a seemingly endless supply). In his career, he flew 487 different types of aircraft. I have no doubt that if the British Interplanetary Society’s 1948 “Megaroc” project to use an upgraded V2 to send an astronaut on a suborbital “hop” (in exactly the same way that Alan Shepherd became the first American in Space in 1961), Eric would undoubtedly have been a prime candidate to have become the world’s first astronaut.

In this age of music, acting and sporting idols, the use of the word “hero” has been somewhat devalued. Winkle Brown was a genuine hero, who, at a time when the life expectancy of a test pilot could be frighteningly short, explored the limitations of new aircraft in the only way possible, by going beyond them.

I feel so privileged to have met this man who, while short in stature towered above the ordinary.

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