On 9th April 2023 my ‘Space Notes’ for Orkney News featured the late Capt. Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, the world’s most experienced test pilot (Fig. 1). One of the joys of the 2000s was my attendance at the annual conference of the British Rocketry Oral History Programme, at Charterhouse School each spring. BROHP’s aim was to record the testimony of the people who took part in Britain’s rocketry and space programme, back in the days when on tiny budgets they produced vehicles such as Black Knight, Blue Streak and the SR-53 rocket aircraft, whose capabilities rivalled the best in the world and in some areas remain unmatched today. The conferences bringing them together were fine events, despite the ‘where did it all go wrong?’ theme which ran through everything, sad tales of missed opportunities and government indifference.
The pattern was set still earlier with the Miles M.52, which could and should have given Britain the first penetration of the Sound Barrier – and with jet propulsion, in level flight, at a higher level of technology than Chuck Yeager’s rocket-powered Bell X-1, which was first to break Mach 1 in 1947. The M.52 project was inspired by intelligence information on the German jet and rocket programme, indicating that they were working on an aircraft to reach 1000 mph, faster than sound. It was actually 1000 kilometres per hour, but the task of matching the supposed German capability was assigned in May 1943 to Miles Aircraft and Frank Whittle, and they rose splendidly to the challenge.
With his 1940s colleague Dennis Bancroft, in 2012 Eric Brown wrote a detailed history of the M.52 project – a fairly short text, heavily backed up with photographs and technical drawings, followed by his own assessment of what went wrong and what might have been. (Miles M.52, Gateway to Supersonic Flight, Spellmount, The History Press, 2012 – Figs. 2 & 3.)
The aircraft was to be powered by a new jet engine specially developed for it by Frank Whittle. Eric Brown was chosen to be M.52 test pilot, “because I was the smallest man in the room”, he said in one of his Charterhouse lectures. The programme began with highly dangerous dives of a modified Spitfire, reaching transonic speeds at which the conventional aerodynamic controls became virtually unusable (Fig. 4). In one such test the wings actually parted from the fuselage, though the pilot managed to land safely. But Eric Brown was too small for the physical strength involved, and to reduce the effort, an ‘all-flying’ tail plane was developed, in which the whole surface was articulated. In a documentary filmed after he broke Mach 1, Chuck Yeager is seen explaining what a breakthrough it was on the part of Bell’s designers and engineers.
That might have been a case of parallel development, but in March 1946, at an advanced stage of preparation for test flight, the Ministry of Supply summarily cancelled the M.52 project, ordering all prototypes, materials, drawings etc to be destroyed. Technical data passed to the USA, particularly on control surfaces, was incorporated into the Bell X-1, but Britain threw away a technical lead from which our aircraft industry never recovered. In February 1955 a Government White Paper bemoaned the decision, which ‘seriously delayed the progress of aeronautical research in the UK’. Whittle’s engine, which was capable of much higher speeds, was never built; if it had been, in Eric Brown’s view, with continuing development and with the modular construction of the aircraft, both would still be at the forefront of research today.
Cost and concerns over pilot safety were the reasons given for the cancellation. Major personal factors were Whittle’s departure from Power Jets, which then ceased production of jet engines, and the late influence of Barnes Wallis, who famously refused to risk more human life after the losses in the Dam Buster raids. On Wallis’s advice the piloted flights of the M.52 were replaced by a series of unpiloted rocket tests, which demonstrated that the control surface problem had indeed been solved, but achieved nothing further although they cost far more than the aircraft itself would have done. Eric Brown’s comment on the issue is that as a professional test pilot, he was paid and was ready to take risks. I have mixed feelings on that: the capsule escape system for the M.52 was incorporated into the Douglas Skyrocket (see below), but never used, and also the Bell X-2, but failed to save the life of Milburn Apt when the X-2 broke apart at Mach 3 and the escape capsule failed to decelerate. Escape at Mach 1 might have been a different proposition, but if it had to be used and was unsuccessful, the world would have been a duller place without Eric.
For years conspiracy theories have argued that the cancellations of the M.52, etc, were all due to American influence, not wishing competition from the UK. At the 1990 Space School in Uxbridge, where we were both speakers, the late Geoffrey Pardoe, one of the principal designers of Blue Streak, told me that was definitely the case with its potential as a satellite launcher, had we gone our own way instead of pursuing the failed Europa programme. Dennis Bancroft, Eric Brown’s collaborator, does not share that view of the M.52 issue. But the book ends on a revelation. “As if to underscore the possibility of a financial deal having been done over the M.52 between Britain and the USAF, there no longer exist any records attributable to John Wilmott, the Government Minister of Supply and Aircraft Production at the relevant time. How could there be absolutely no traceable evidence of Mr. Wilmot’s term of office?” To which one can only add, ‘How indeed?
In the second edition of his autobiography Wings on My Sleeve (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006), Eric Brown reveals that when he was with the US Navy 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”. Since he had pioneered the use of rocket-assisted take-offs of Hurricanes, was the only allied pilot to fly the Me-163 rocket fighter under power, and had been the intended pilot for the M.52, I speculated in my 9th April article that since he was similar in size to Scott Crossfield, who was flying the Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket, Eric might have tried to get a flight in the Skyrocket for himself and beaten Crossfield to Mach 2, which he reached in 1953.
By September 10th 1955, when Express Weekly featured the ongoing research with the Douglas Skyrocket (Fig. 5), I was solidly hooked on space thanks to BBC Children’s Hour’s Lost Planet serials, Dan Dare on Radio Luxembourg (on the strength of which I finally persuaded my parents to buy the Eagle instead of the worthy but dull Children’s Newspaper), and the Daily Express adult version of ‘Jeff Hawke’, drawn by Sydney Jordan. (Express Weekly had a junior version of ‘Hawke’, drawn first by Charlie Jack and then by Fernando Tacconni.) My transition to adult SF continued when I started following Journey into Space at episode 3 of The Red Planet, later that month. But my conversion from the sea to space the previous year had been boosted in July 1955 by the Reader’s Digest condensed version of The Lonely Sky, by William (Bill) Bridgman, co-authored by Jacqueline Hazard, describing how he flew the Skyrocket and achieved a world altitude record of 79,000 feet in August 1951. I didn’t read it in full until the paperback came out in 1958, and I finally found the 1956 Cassell hardback with photographs in the bookshop at the East Fortune Museum of Flight in 2003, but it made a big impression on me in 1955. I painstaking copied out the Express Weekly diagram of the Skyrocket (Fig. 6), freehand, on an afternoon off school in bed, and based several paintings on it and the photograph in the February 1948 National Geographic Magazine (Fig. 7).
On the Express Weekly cover the Skyrocket was accompanied by a photo of the Bell X-1A (wrongly captioned as the Bell X-2) and one of the Douglas X-3, another research aircraft which proved to be underpowered and unsuccessful. Originally Douglas had intended the Skyrocket to be the middle one of three aircraft. The D-558-1 Skystreak was a hybrid jet and rocket research vehicle, and the D-558-3 Skyflash was intended to be a supersonic rocket fighter, looking a lot like the North American X-15 which became the focus of the NACA programme (later NASA’s) after the fatal crash of the Bell X-2 in September 1956. The Douglas contender was eliminated from the X-15 competition in 1955 and isn’t mentioned in The Lonely Sky, nor by Scott Crossfield, as the initial X-15 pilot, in his autobiography Always Another Dawn (Hodder & Stoughton, 1960).
The X-1 and its derivatives were a US Air Force project, while the Skyrocket was US Navy. Rivalry between the two services played a significant part in the programme: both the X-1 and Skyrocket were to be air-launched from the B-29 or its B-50 variant, but had to be capable of take-off under their own power, however risky and despite the weight penalty of stressing the undercarriage to carry the fuel load, just so they would be eligible for official records under the rules of the time. The first version of the Skyrocket had a jet engine for runway take-offs, but to get it into the air needed rocket boost either from the main engine or from Jet Assisted Take Off solid- fuel boosters – note the air intake and the JATO ‘bottles’ in the photo which the Express Weekly captioned ‘With a blast of power the Skyrocket roars away’, actually one of Bridgman’s early flights in 1950.
Neither The Lonely Sky nor Express Weekly mentioned that in November 1953 Scott Crossfield had taken the all-rocket Skyrocket to Mach 2, and I didn’t know about it until I requested Always Another Dawn as a school prize in 1962. In 1979 I saw the Skyrocket he used, at the National Air and Space Museum, and was disappointed that its gleaming white lacquer (renewed before every flight to smooth its aerodynamic shape) had been allowed to grow dull. On his first glimpse of it, Bridgman wrote, “This was the most beautiful airplane I had ever seen. This was something I had to do now. It was no longer a question of merely wanting to fly the Skyrocket – I had to fly it.” (Fig. 8). Poorly lit and much less prominently displayed than Yeager’s X-1 Glamorous Glennis, what most struck me wasn’t its beauty but how small it was. (From the one recent photo I’ve been able to track down, it seems it’s now better displayed.)
Indeed, when I met Scott Crossfield in 1990, at the end of NASA’s ‘First International Hypersonic Waverider Symposium’ at the University of Maryland, he proved to be a little chap, like Eric Brown. The conference dinner was held at the Smithsonian, with Crossfield as after-dinner speaker. The meal was held upstairs in a new gallery, embodying the new spirit of museums worldwide in bringing disparate exhibits together – in this case the Engineering Test Model of Mariner 10, a lifting body, and the X-29A, with its distinctive forward-swept wings. In his speech Crossfield pointed out that the Skyrocket in which he had been first to reach Mach 2 was hanging just along the hall, “but I don’t know why I’m speaking in here. That’s an automated space probe, that aircraft has its wings back to front and this one’s got no wings at all…”
At another conference dinner, at the UK Space Conference at Charterhouse School in 2008, I found myself seated next to Joe Engle, veteran of the X-15 programme, Apollo and the Space Shuttle, who introduced himself as if I wouldn’t know his name, and seemed surprised when I said the X-15 pilots were among my boyhood heroes. Mrs. Engle asked which of my boyhood heroes I had first met, and seemed surprised in turn when I named Arthur C. Clarke, at the 1965 World SF Convention in London, rather than a test pilot or an astronaut. We talked about Scott Crossfield, but with a tinge of sadness because Crossfield had died on April 19th 2006, returning from a talk at an Air Force base at the controls of his own Cessna, in a thunderstorm of which air traffic control had failed to warn him. The last photo in Always Another Dawn shows him getting into a similar aircraft at sunrise, entering civilian life after the X-15 was handed over to NASA, and we agreed that he had met the end he would have wanted.
However, so soon after my April 9th article, there is a new authorised biography of Eric Brown (Paul Beaver, Winkle, The Extraordinary Story of Britain’s Greatest Pilot, Michael Joseph, 2023). It contains a great deal of previously unpublished detail about Eric’s life and career (not least, that he and Scott Crossfield were close friends), and deserves a review to itself, which I shall try to provide next week.
(Parts of this article previously appeared in Concatenation, September 2012; William Rudling, ed., Jeff Hawke Jnr., Jeff Hawke Club, January 2017; Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos, Vol. 10 No.2, August 2017; and in Space & Scotland No. 4, September 2017.)