Eric “Winkle” Brown: 1919-2016


The phrase “witness to history” is an overused one in the obituary writer’s vocabulary and probably just as often overstates the departed’s life role. But in the case of Eric “Winkle” Brown, it’s barely adequate to describe the man. As you read in this week’s news columns, Brown died thisweek at the age of 97. Given his occupation as the most well-known flight test pilot in the U.K.—and the world for that matter—it’s a testament to raw skill, preparation, instinct and, I bet he’d say some luck, that he lived to that age. Interestingly, Brown says his small stature–that’s how he got the nickname “Winkle”–may have saved him in at least one crash.Only U.S. readers with a smattering of aviation history knowledge will know of Brown’s career as a Royal Navy pilot involved in many of the U.K.’s major test programs during World War II and immediately after it.

I never met Brown, but know of him vicariously through reading and filmed interviews. What I found most interesting about those interviews is his incredible recall of detail and ability to put a story’s key frames into meaningful perspective even a non-aviation viewer can grasp. He was at the intersection of so many critical events in aviation that in any reading of history, he’ll pop up Zelig-like nearly everywhere. In this video, he tells the story of a test program to land the DeHavilland Mosquito on the decks of aircraft carriers.

Well into the program, he began to wonder why the Royal Navy wanted to do that. A chance meeting with Barnes Wallis—he of the dam busters bomb fame—revealed that the Brits planned to attack Japanese capital ships with skip bombs from carrier-launched Mosquitos in the Pacific. The war against Japan ended before they sailed.

But for a quirk of fate, Brown would be known as the first pilot to exceed Mach 1, rather than a then-unknown Air Force captain named Yeager. Brown had been the principal pilot on a project called the Miles M.52 and as the U.S. Air Force later did, the test team was slowly inching its way toward the Mach 1 mark. Without explanation, the program was summarily canceled and the acquired data and design work was sent to the U.S. One key technical element from the M.52 was the all-flying tail, which is how the X-1 team eventually overcame the shock wave problem on the X-1’s tail. The rest, as they say, is history and you can hear Brown talk about it in this interview.Here’s another nice BBC piece on Brown. Among Brown’s many firsts was the first landing of a jet aboard a carrier in 1945. He ended his career with 2407 shipboard traps, a record that will likely stand for a long time.

Fair warning about clicking on these links. Be prepared to spend an hour or two watching these and other interviews. And if you do that, you’ll understand why Brown so richly deserves mention in this space. I doubt if we’ll see his like again.