Full medal jacket

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 49, Winter 2016

Page 19

Full medal jacket

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 49, Winter 2016

Page 19

Full medal jacket

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 49, Winter 2016

Page 19

Full medal jacket

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 49, Winter 2016

Page 19

Captain Eric 'Winkle' Brown was Britain's greatest pilot, flying 487 different planes over three decades. James Holland pays tribute to a legendary aviator whose medals are being offered at Bonhams

Captain Eric 'Winkle' Brown had faced danger many times. During his first flying experience as a teenager, he had been flown upside down just inches off the ground by the German First World War ace Ernst Udet. He had been repeatedly shot at. He had survived being on an aircraft carrier that was sunk underneath him and on which most of his fellow pilots were killed. He had carried out innumerable pioneering and highly dangerous deck landings. He had even flown every single one of the Nazi experimental aircraft, including the lethal Messerschmitt Me163 Komet, which was powered by rocket fuel so volatile it would explode on landing if there were any left in the tank. Nonetheless, Brown reckoned the closest he ever came to death in the course of his extraordinarily long and record-breaking career was during a crash test investigation in a de Havilland DH108 'Swallow' jet a few years after the war.

The crash in question had killed Geoffrey de Havilland Jr, who was not only the son of the pioneering aircraft designer Geoffrey de Havilland Sr, but also the company's chief test pilot. In September 1946, he was flying a futuristic new jet design in an effort to break the elusive sound barrier, when the aircraft broke up. His body was discovered to have a broken neck. This fatal injury had occurred in the cockpit, not from plummeting to the earth.

It was the jet age, and in those immediate post-war years, Britain was leading the world. It had the best jet engines, its companies and test pilots were prepared to push the boundaries of known aeronautics in a way no other country would or could, and British world domination – whether in commercial or military aviation – seemed within touching distance. De Havilland's death had a huge worldwide impact on aviation, however: some were even questioning whether jet power had a future. It was essential, therefore, that the cause of the crash be discovered. And it would be 'Winkle' Brown's task to recreate that fateful flight and try to work out what precisely had happened.

He was given a DH108 with strengthened wings and also equipped with an ejector seat, but Brown was keenly aware that he was taking a leap into a potentially fatal unknown. What he did know was that de Havilland had been diving down from 11,000 feet and was flying at around Mach 0.975 when the aircraft broke up, so he climbed and did much the same. He had reached Mach 0.988 when suddenly, and without any warning, the plane began to oscillate wildly. 'And I mean really wild,' Brown told me, 'because every second, it did three oscillations of plus 4 G and minus 3 G.' That meant his head was being snapped not just quietly to-and-fro but violently right back until it hit the pad behind him and then came straight forward with his chin on his chest. This was happening at a rate of three cycles per second. After just ten seconds of this, he would have fallen unconscious, and death would have swiftly followed. After seven seconds of this terrifying ordeal, he tried desperately to reach for the ejection seat, but he couldn't get his hands up because of the G-forces. Instead, he managed to ease back the throttle and pull back the stick – and, in the nick of time, the oscillation stopped. He was able to bring the aircraft home.

Later, he learned that an aircraft flying close by at the time of the full oscillation looked across at Brown's jet and could see nothing but a blur. 'That was the closest shave I ever had,' he admitted. He'd survived because he was smaller than de Havilland, and because of his greater experience, but that hadn't stopped him from being a whisker away from suffering the same fate.

Brown flew an incredible 487 different types of aircraft in his career, a world record that I am sure will never be beaten. Even into his nineties, he was still being flown to the USA or elsewhere around the world to speak or to be asked advice. His knowledge, a depth of experience that ranged from the biplane age through to supersonic flight and beyond, was unique. Too many people today are described as 'legends' or heroes, but Brown was both.

Brought up in Scotland, the son of a First World War fighter pilot, Brown was diminutive, wiry, fiercely intelligent and a pragmatist.

There was no late-night drinking for him and no carousing. He ensured that he was as fully prepared as possible for every flight he made; this was essential when he might be flying as many as seven different aircraft in one day. Nowadays pilots always carry notes in a pocket on their leg, but Brown was the first to do this as a matter of course. 'I always realized that we were in a high-risk job, therefore try to reduce the risk by meeting it halfway,' he once told me. 'And my idea of meeting it halfway was to prepare myself very carefully for what I was going to do.' That might sound obvious now, but during the war, and in the heady post-war days, many test pilots were more cavalier – and all too often paid the ultimate price as a result.

That flight with Udet happened in 1936 because the German ace had invited Brown's father and other aviators to the Berlin Olympics, and the young Eric had accompanied his father. Udet had told him he should learn to fly and learn German; so he did. With the outbreak of war, Brown joined the Fleet Air Arm and became a navy pilot, which was where he first carried out deck landings and discovered he had a particular aptitude for the task. After surviving the loss of HMS Audacity and several days drifting at sea, he was rescued, returned home and began his career as a test pilot.

He was the first person to land a twin-engine aircraft – a de Havilland Mosquito – on an aircraft carrier, and the first person to land a jet on deck too. No one has come close to making as many deck landings as him. At the end of World War II, Brown became head of Operation Enemy Flight, the Royal Aircraft Establishment's team investigating German aircraft design. He interviewed Goering, Willy Messerschmitt, Ernst Heinkel, Kurt Tank and all the major German aircraft designers and test pilots. He even briefly met Heinrich Himmler and managed to acquire the former head of the SS's personal plane, a Focke-Wulf Condor, for his own use.

I was fortunate to get to know 'Winkle' Brown and to talk to him at length on numerous occasions. Every time I met him, he always told me something he hadn't mentioned before. It was always remarkable, whether it was that Guy Gibson – hero of the 'Dam Busters' raid – had told him he was terrified every time he stepped into a plane, or about the superb Heinkel 112, a pre-war German fighter plane never produced by the Luftwaffe, or about his close friendship with the astronaut Neil Armstrong. It was impossible to tire of his stories.

Once, I kept him talking all day, but, even as I was leaving, he showed no sign of fatigue. Clapping his hands together, he said, 'Right, I think I might wander down to the pub and get a bite to eat.' He had been 94 at the time.

It is incredible that such a man, whose brain was as sharp as ever right until the end, should be no more. When he died, not only did Britain lose its greatest pilot, the world lost one of the most extraordinary aviators ever to have lived.

James Holland is a historian, writer, and broadcaster. His latest book, The War in the West: Germany Ascendant, 1939-1941, is out now.

Sale: Medals, Bonds, Banknotes and Coins
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Wednesday 23 November at 10.30am
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