Space Notes:  Capt. Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, RN

by Duncan Lunan

With Easter upon us, it brings back memories of the annual conferences of the British Rocketry Oral History Programme, most of which I attended in the 2000s.  One of the founders of BROHP was C.N. (Nicholas) Hill, author of the book A Vertical Empire, The History of the UK Rocket and Space Programme, 1950-1971  (Imperial College Press, 2001 – Fig. 1).  As a history teacher at Charterhouse School, he had gained the use of the excellent facilities there for the conferences.  I had met Geoffrey Pardoe, one of the designers of Blue Streak, at Heinz Wolff’s UK Space School ten years later, but at Charterhouse I was suddenly among the men who had built and flown the Skylark, Black Knight, Blue Streak, Blue Steel, Black Arrow, and many more projects of the British space programme, all cancelled one by one by the British governments of the day.  I met many amazing characters, among them Roy Dommett, the principal designer of Blue Streak, with whom I had a memorable visit to the Air and Space Museum at East Fortune, when I brought him to Scotland to lecture in 2002. 

front cover shows a rocket launching
Fig. 1. C.N. Hill, A Vertical Empire

But none was more memorable than Eric Brown, originally from Leith – listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most experienced test pilot with 487 different types, not counting variants such as 14 marks of Spitfire and Seafire  (Fig. 2).  He was the first pilot to land a jet on an aircraft carrier, and during his career he made 2407 carrier landings  (another world record), including the extraordinary experiments landing a De Havilland Vampire ‘wheels-up’ on a rubber carrier deck  (Fig. 3).  When Concorde was removed from service, one of them was assigned to the air and space museum on the World War 2 USS Intrepid on the Hudson River in New York, and Eric was fond of recounting that before it was assigned to a barge alongside, some people had asked, ‘How will they get it on to the carrier deck?’  To which the answer was, “We’ll just get Winkle Brown to land it on.”

His dry sense of humour brought his lectures to life in a way mostly lacking from the matter-of-fact tone of his autobiography Wings on My Sleeve  (second expanded edition, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006), in which he writes for instance of his escape from Germany at the outbreak of World War 2, despite having a German technical education, sponsored by Ernst Udet, which made him invaluable to the Allies both before and after the war.  As a result he spent much of the war test-flying German aircraft which had been rebuilt after being shot down or captured.  Once when a defector had landed the most recent type of Focke-Wulf 190 in North Africa, he had to fly it back to the UK still in its Luftwaffe markings, with escorts of allied aircraft all the way.  A few lines in the book and a photo suffice for his near-fatal demonstration of the rocket launch system for Spitfires and Hurricanes, proposed by Churchill to defend the Arctic convoys.  The launch trolley  (a forerunner of the one proposed for Alan Bond’s HOTOL)  was to be braked to a stop by water-filled buffers.  But the operator was so overcome by Churchill’s presence that he forgot to refill them, with the result that Brown’s launch carried ‘the hale concern’ into the air, trolley, buffers and all.  Somehow he managed to complete a circuit and set it down, at which point Churchill, who thought it was meant to work that way, authorised it to be put into production.

the aircraft at the museum
Fig. 4. Me-163 at East Fortune Museum of Flight, Wikipedia Commons

At my first meeting with Eric at Charterhouse, organiser Dave Wright dramatically swore me to secrecy because the talk was to be about how Brown had been the only allied pilot to fly the rocket interceptor Me-163 Komet under power, at the end of the war.  The secrecy was to protect the ground crew, who might still be vulnerable to Nazi reprisals 40 years later.  At later conferences the restriction was lifted, after the last potential victim died, and in the second edition of Wings on My Sleeve Eric goes into it in detail.  He described the Me-163 as “to my mind one of the most dangerous aircraft ever given to a pilot to fly… In effect you were locked in your coffin”  because the hood could not be opened above 250 mph, and it flew at 600  (Fig. 4).  Still the only rocket fighter ever to reach operational status, it was propelled by murderously unstable mixtures known as T-Stoff and C-Stoff, and was brought into service at the end of the war “as an act of desperation”, despite heavy losses of pilots in development and training.  Its two-wheeled main undercarriage was dropped on take-off and would frequently rebound to strike the aircraft, usually with fatal results if it was fully fuelled  (Fig. 5).   The famous woman pilot Hanna Reitsch broke her back in one such accident, and was hospitalised for several months.  

2 wheels from the aircraft
Fig. 5. Me-163 undercarriage, Airforce Museum Berlin-Gatow

Two minutes put the aircraft above the target bomber formation at 30,000 feet, and although the relative speed allowed only 2 seconds of firing time while passing in an unpowered dive, the late Martin Caidin said of it, “The two 30 mm. cannon in the rocket interceptor were extremely effective antibomber weapons and, once the Komet zeroed in on a Fortress or a Liberator, it was almost certainly curtains for that airplane.”  (Rockets beyond the Earth, McBride, New York, 1952).   Still the massed rear guns of allied daylight bombing formations proved able to bring it down, and while up to six attacks could be made, two minutes  (timed by stopwatch)  had to elapse before the engine was relit;  fighter escorts soon learned to pounce on the unpowered rocket, especially once its fuel ran out.  It was so aerodynamically clean that the pilot had only to put the nose down to escape, but although more manoeuvrable than anything Brown had flown except the Spitfire, it was capable of a violent stall without warning while turning.  There was no Machmeter, and buffeting above Mach 0.82 was the only warning of approaching Mach 0.84, at which it would tuck into a ‘graveyard dive’ from which “there was virtually no hope of recovery”.  Coming back to landing on a skid was “tantamount to a death sentence” if there was fuel left aboard – no pilot survived it.  Even without that, one-third of the surviving pilots had broken backs because there were so many ways to do that. 

Eric was sent to Germany ‘with a plane-load of boffins’ to secure the jet and rocket aircraft for examination.  On one occasion he was directed to an airfield where, he was told, the troops garrisoning it had just surrendered.  Landing in his unarmed Anson, “without so much as a popgun between us”, he taxied in to the dispersal and as he was met by the Commandant, he realised that there wasn’t an Allied solder in sight.  “What are you doing here?” the German demanded.  “I’ve come to accept your surrender,” Eric replied, and got it – including 2000 troops, without a shot being fired.

The investigators found that although thousands of conventional aircraft had been destroyed, the jets and rocket aircraft were intact because the technicians were too proud of them to blow them up.  (There’s a similar history to the second stage engines of the Soviet N-1 ‘Lenin’ booster, which were the most advanced in the world at the time of the Moon race.  A warehouse full of them was revealed at the end of the Cold War, and they ended up powering the Atlas V, the final space-launcher variant of a booster which had originally been created to destroy the USSR.)  Nevertheless they weren’t necessarily in the best condition, and once when he was taxiing out in an Me-262 jet fighter, one of its engines exploded and blew the wing off.  With a detachment worthy of Neil Armstrong  (with whom he became friends), in the famous incident of the LLRV failure  (‘And Finally…’, ON 23rd October 2022), Eric went back to dispersal and picked up another one.

As a fluent German speaker, and with his technical background, he played a major part in interrogating German industrialists and leaders such as Heinrich Himmler, Josef Kramer and Hermann Goering.  Though he was reticent about it in his book, that Charterhouse lecture was amazing, filled with lines like, “So I said to Messerschmidt, that’s not what von Braun told me yesterday…”  He had taken part in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, and was required to interrogate women’s camp Director Irma Grese, “the most evil person I have ever met.  Fortunately, she had no technical information of value, and I had Pierpont, the official hangman, with me…”  He had no more admiration for Hanna Reitsch, the woman test pilot who was the only one to launch in a V-1 Flying Bomb and survive, to discover the reason for its control problems in flight.  Despite her glamorous portrayal by her counterparts  (M. Ziegler, Rocket Fighter, The Story of the Me 163, Macdonald, 1963), which probably inspired her portrayal in the film Operation Crossbow (1965), he found that she was never formally qualified as a test pilot, she was mainly interested in accumulating aircraft types flown for the sake of it, and her unstinting admiration of Hitler was unchanged even when she and Brown met again in later life.

With his jet and rocket experience, he was a natural to fly the Miles M.52, Britain’s bid for the sound barrier.  The project was cancelled by the Ministry of Supply in 1946, ostensibly on the grounds of pilot safety  (strongly urged by Barnes Wallis), a decision which Eric felt was his rather than theirs to make.  He was fairly quiet at Charterhouse about his disappointment, but spoke out more freely in his book Miles M.52, Gateway to Supersonic Flight  (Spellmount, The History Press, 2012, co-authored with Dennis Bancroft – Fig. 6), in which he openly suggested that money had improperly changed hands when the project was cancelled and the technical data was handed to the USA.  As he said, it’s hard otherwise to explain why not just the decision but that whole period at the Ministry has apparently been expunged from government records.

the aircraft from above
Fig. 6. ‘Miles M.52’ front cover

It’s therefore very interesting that in Wings on My Sleeve Eric reveals that when he was with the US Flight Test Division at Patuxent River, Maryland, in 1951-52, “I followed with particular interest the high-speed work on the rocket-propelled Douglas Skyrocket at Muroc in California”, at the time when Scott Crossfield was working up to Mach 2 in it  (Fig. 7).  Scott Crossfield was one of my teenage heroes – I had chosen his autobiography Always Another Dawn  (Hodder & Stoughton, 1960)  as a school prize in my 4th year at Marr College  (Fig. 8).  I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in 1990, when he was the after-dinner speaker at NASA’s ‘1st International Waverider Symposium’   (see ‘Waverider Part 1 – a Spacecraft in Waiting’, ON November 27th, 2022), and the Skyrocket in which he’d taken the record was hanging just along the hall.  Both Eric and Crossfield were little chaps – he said self-deprecatingly that he had been chosen to fly the M.52 “because I was the smallest man in the room”, and the all-flying elevator tailplane, which enabled Chuck Yeager to break Mach 1 and was claimed as a US invention, had originally been developed because Eric lacked the physical strength to pull the Spitfire out of transonic dive tests.  Having been robbed of his place in history with the Sound Barrier, and since he was a Navy pilot and the Skyrocket was a US Navy programme, one can’t help wondering whether he might have taken his revenge by claiming Mach 2 if he’d gained a flight in the Skyrocket for himself.

My book The Elements of Time  (Shoreline of Infinity, 2016)  was illustrated by Sydney Jordan, the creator of the Jeff Hawke strip for the Daily Express in 1954.  It began with a collision with a flying saucer, and at the Elements book launch Sydney said it had been prompted by the story of Capt. Thomas F. Mantell, as described by Major Donald E. Keyhoe in Flying Saucers from Outer Space  (Hutchinson, 1953).   Mantell died in a P-51 Mustang in 1948, while in pursuit of an object he was said to have described as ‘metallic and of tremendous size’:  the mundane explanation is that he was overcome by lack of oxygen while trying to close with a metallised Skyhook balloon, which was a classified project of the time, similar to the reconnaissance Project Mogul which may be the explanation for the 1947 ‘Roswell Incident’.  In Wings on my Sleeve, Eric Brown described being sent up in a Vampire in February 1956 to try to intercept a UFO, but it was too high for him, well over 40,000 feet.   “… in the half-light of dusk I could not identify it.  But I am certain it was not a cosmic research balloon, which was the only tangible thing I thought it might be.  The shape continued to be identified along the entire Bristol Channel coast that evening without any explanation of it ever coming out.  Where I once scoffed – I now have an open mind.”  However his own experience left him in no doubt about the explanation for two Tudor airliners which disappeared in good weather conditions over the ‘Bermuda Triangle’.  Having test-flown the Tudor and failed to remedy the airliner’s many faults, he wrote, “it was quite obvious that it would never be a specially good aeroplane… It was to have a shocking career.”

Eric Brown as an old man
Fig.9. Eric Brown in later life

I brought Eric Brown to Glasgow and Airdrie to lecture in April 2004, and at the Annual Dinner of the spaceflight society ASTRA he proposed our annual toast to Yuri Gagarin, whom he had met on his visit to Britain soon after his flight into space.  In 2015 Eric Brown spoke at the Boswell Literary Festival in Ayrshire, after which the Daily Record made him their ‘Great Scot’ Scotsman of the Year.  (Heather Greenaway, ‘Great Scot 2015: Pioneering airman Captain Eric Brown is hailed a hero at our silver anniversary awards ceremony’. The Daily Record, 18th October 2015.)   I very much wanted to meet him again, but by the time I had organised transport all the tickets had gone, and there was no waiting list.  I had a nasty feeling it might have been the last chance, and so it proved when his death was announced in February 2016, at the age of 97.

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