Winkle: The Extraordinary Life of Britain’s Greatest Pilot

Hush-Kit talks Winkle with Beaver

Captain Eric Melrose ‘Winkle’ Brown is a strong candidate for being the greatest test pilot of the 20th century. Paul Beaver’s forthcoming book takes a look into the psychology of this cool-headed Scottish master pilot and the human story of Winkle’s success. Away from the his undoubted flying brilliance, lurk awkward questions about his thwarted desire to fight on the Fascist side in the Spanish Civil War. We met veteran aviation writer Paul Beaver to find out more.

Who was Eric Brown and why is he important? 

Captain Eric Melrose Brown – known to everyone, except his close friends as Winkle was a naval test pilot, squadron and station commander who flew more types, carried out more deck landings and carrier recoveries than one pilot before or since. His record is unlikely to be bettered because there just aren’t the number of types flying. His 487 types logged does not represent marks either – he flew fourteen marks of Spitfire for example.

    Winkle is important because he was the greatest handling test pilot of all time. He also mastered difficult machines with skill and still found time to be at important 20th Century events – the Olympics in Berlin, Germany pre-war, the flight of the first jet in Britain, interviewing Gring, identifying Himmler, Bergen-Belsen, and many others. He was friends with statesmen, pilots and industrialists and even called Shirley Bassey and Glenn Miller ‘friends’.

    What were his three favourite types and why? 

    Over forty years of friendship, I chatted to Winkle on numerous occasions about his favourites and least favourites. We draw up a list which is to be in WINKLE – the biography in full. Top Trumps for Eric were (1) de Havilland Sea Hornet which he took to the deck on 16 August 1945 and which he cited as having all the advantages of the Mosquito but very few, if any, of the vices; (2) Messerschmitt Me 262A which had a special place in his heart and which he first flew on 24 June 1945 at Grove in Denmark. He would have been delighted to see the Me 262 at RIAT this year and would still marvel at its advanced wing design; (3) Supermarine Spitfire Mk XIV because of its high tactical Mach number and which he reckoned was the best of the breed. He liked the Mk IX when he flew it in combat, but he rated the Mk XIV as outstanding.

    • And three types he didn’t like (and reasons why) 

    Eric loved aeroplanes and helicopters, he loved flying and testing, but he often said he was lucky to get away with flying some types. His least favourite aeroplanes of all 487 flown were (1) the General Aircraft GAL/56 which said, “don’t come much worse than this one” and another time he told me that flying it was a “battle of wits”; (2) de Havilland DH 108 Swallow, the test pilot killer which cost the lives of two key test pilots between 1946 and 1950. Eric thought he survived flying it in 1948 because of his small stature – hence the nickname Winkle – which meant that his head didn’t hit the canopy in violent oscillations; (3) the Fairey Spearfish which Eric would also reference to me as a “real old cow”.

    A “real old cow”

    It often said Winkle performed the first twin-engined aircraft take-off from a carrier, yet there is a rival French claim – which is true? 

    Winkle’s claim holds. The French claim is undocumented and there is no real evidence. Just like the American claim to the first jet landing on a carrier.

    What was Winkle’s role in the Spanish civil war? Is it true he said he didn’t mind which side he was fighting for? 

    In 1945, there is a record of a throw away line from Eric after his jet deck landing aboard HMS Ocean where he admits to the Daily Mail to fighting in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. I spent a good few weeks working on this clue and found, in a logbook and from interviewing his other friends that there was something in the story. In the biography WINKLE, I go into detail about the flying experiences he had but caution that there is no passport or other travel evidence to support his claim. In terms of his politics, he had just been in Germany and met pilots of the Condor Legion so his motivation was supporting Franco rather than the Communists. Fate decreed otherwise. His politics were conservative (small c), unionist and Monarchist so not the politics of a socialist who might join the International Brigades which had folded by 1939 anyway. The biography is focussed on Eric’s life and motivations; it’s the man not the machines that will interest the reader.

    What was he doing in the Second World War? 

    Eric’s wartime experiences take up much of the Biography and are too many and too rich in interest to relate in an interview. Read the book! He was commissioned into the Royal Navy, served on a fighting squadron, was torpedoed, became a test pilot, got married, became the wizard of deck landings and flying under bridges, saw combat over Occupied France and commanded the Enemy Aircraft Flight at RAE Farnborough. He took fewer than ten days leave!

    What were his experiences of Nazism in the post war German air force? 

    Eric was essentially non-political. He liked Germany pre-war but had little contact with the Nazi Party until he was arrested by the SD (not the Gestapo) in September 1939. His next encounter was in 1945 when Bergen-Belsen was liberated that April and then leading the aeronautical test flying of the Farren Mission to Germany’ Post-war, he met U-Boats commanders and fighter aces – he loathed the use of Nazi as a shorthand in popular media for everything German during the war. There were no Nazi Bombers, he would say, just German ones, some of which were flown by Party members and many which were not.During Eric’s time as the Head of the British Naval Air Mission to Germany in 1958. Eric and his wife, Lynn, were guests of a German naval club in Kiel. The Browns were horrified to see the Nazi memorabilia and left. The Club was closed down shortly afterwards.

    What made him such a good test pilot? 

    This is the nub of the biography. The Hon Dr Katherine Campbell, the noted psychologist and biographer of her father, Sholto Douglas, and I discussed Eric’s test flying from a medic’s point of view. She reckons, and I agree, that Eric was able to compartmentalise his life when flying. He shut out everything but the task, even on the day his father died and the day his son was born prematurely. Eric also trained for every eventuality and had a plan for every flight, including likely (and unlikely) emergencies. “Know the numbers,” he told me when I started military flying in the Army Air Corps and remember to have two escape routes already in your mind. The rest is covered in the book!

    What should I have asked you? 

    Perhaps about his thoughts of the aircraft which got away: (1) X-15 which he could not fly because of his nationality; (2) the SR-71 because when it came into service, he had retired and (3) the Miles M52, about which I have a different take to the preserved wisdom.*

    * I pressed Paul to share his views on the M52 but he refused and instead suggests we learn his views in his forthcoming book

    Paul Beaver retired from the British Army Reserve in 2012. He was commissioned into the Army Air Corps (V) in 1987 and ended his career as Colonel (Reserves) in the Joint Helicopter Command. In the intervening period he flew Scout, Squirrel, Gazelle and undertook an Apache course in America in 2009. During various exchanges and visits, Paul flew German, French, Italian, Spanish and US National Guard single-engined types including Mike-model Hueys with the latter.

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