WWW.SEAPOWERMAGAZINE.ORG 78 SEAPOWER / MAY 2016
Royal Navy Pilot Left Lasting
Legacy on Naval Aviation
By BARRETT TILLMAN
The world-champion carrier aviator, retired U.K. Royal
Navy Capt. Eric M. Brown died on
Feb. 21 at age 97.
Widely known as “Winkle,”
for the small periwinkle shellfish,
Brown was a slightly built aviator
with a massive reputation. He is
best known for his “numbers.” He
retains the record of 2,407 arrested
landings and more than 2,700 catapult launches, having flown 487
aircraft types — not models.
An Edinburgh native, Brown
spoke with a rich Scottish accent
but he was fluent in German, a
skill that later paid dividends. He gained his rating
with the University Air Squadron program in time for
World War II.
In 1941, Brown went to combat in the first escort carrier, HMS Audacity, flying Grumman Martlets — export
Wildcats. He shot down two Focke-Wulf Condor bombers (a record) before his ship was sunk by a U-boat.
Subsequently, Brown was assigned to the Sea Trials
Unit, testing arresting wires on U.S.-built escort carriers. He became so proficient that he dispensed with
a “batsman” or Landing Signal Officer since he could
pick his desired wire without help.
From there, Brown got a dream assignment — Bos-combe Down, Britain’s premier flight-test facility. The
variety was enormous: he qualified in multi-engine
types and taught himself to fly a helicopter. He managed a few missions chasing V- 1 buzz bombs — one
exploded in his face, forcing a bailout — and began
flying Gloster Meteor jets.
Immediately following VE Day, Brown played a
major role Britain’s effort to obtain German aircraft and
data. He flew more than 50 Luftwaffe types, including
the Me262, and probably was the only foreigner to
make a powered flight in an Me163.
Brown became Britain’s chief naval test pilot, focusing
on taking jets to sea. He was “tremendously keen to beat
the Yanks” and succeeded. In December 1945, he landed
a de Havilland Sea Vampire aboard HMS Ocean, inaugu-
rating the jet age to carrier aviation. He survived the DH
108 — Britain’s effort at supersonic flight — that killed
Geoffrey de Havilland Jr., son of the
de Havilland company owner.
One of Brown’s most innovative projects was the 1948 rubber
“flex deck” carrier landing system intended to dispense with aircraft landing gear. He proved the
concept, landing a Sea Vampire
gear-up and snagging an arresting
wire, but the idea lapsed. So did
the Saunders-Rowe jet flying boat
fighter, in which Brown nearly died
after colliding with sunken debris.
Despite his international reputation as a test pilot, Brown received
non-flying assignments that showcased his versatility. As an attaché, he helped re-establish
German naval aviation, then went to the Royal Navy
planning office contemplating CV.01, Britain’s first super
carrier, which ultimately was canceled.
In recognition of his exceptional service, then-Capt.
Brown was named naval aide to Queen Elizabeth, his
final assignment before retiring in 1970.
By then Brown had completed his memoir, “Wings
on My Sleeve,” and found an eager internation-
al audience for his writing. His detailed articles in
Air International formed the basis for many of his
books including “Wings of the Navy,” “Wings of the
Luftwaffe” and “Duels in the Sky.”
In what passed for retirement, Brown became pres-
ident of the Royal Aeronautical Society and a leading
member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. He
stopped flying in 1994 at age 75 but remained a widely
sought-after consultant and speaker. Often asked his
favorite aircraft, he cited the de Havilland Sea Hornet
(“like flying a Ferrari”) and the North American F-86E
(“a sheer delight.”)
As one of the 20th-century’s leading aviators, Brown
had a practical view of 21st-century aeronautics. In the
1990s, he foresaw an increasing role for drones but he
had a solution for youngsters enamored of aviation
video games: “Let them fly a Tiger Moth!” n
Barrett Tillman is an award-winning naval and aviation author
with 50 books and nearly 700 articles published. His next book
is a centennial history of aircraft carriers from Regency.
Then-Lt. Cmdr. Eric M. Brown in the
cockpit of an aircraft during World