Dubbed ‘Winkle’ after the small Periwinkle shellfish due to his small stature at 5’7", Brown is the most decorated pilot in the history of Britain’s Navy Fleet Air Arm. He holds world records for the most carrier deck landings - 2,407, the most carrier take-offs - 2,721 and the most different types of aircraft flown (excluding variants) - 487. He was also the first to land a tricycle undercarriage plane, and take-off and land a jet powered aircraft, a de Havilland Sea Vampire, on a carrier. He survived 11 aircraft crashes and the sinking of the carrier, HMS Audacity. His world records are unlikely to ever be broken.
Brown’s life history is just as fascinating as his records are impressive. Born a Scot, he spent time in Germany as a language student after meeting WWI German ace Ernst Udet at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. The German pilot was so impressed with Brown’s stamina during an aerobatic flight with him that he said, “You’ll make a fine fighter pilot – do me two favours: learn to speak German fluently and learn to fly.”
In 1939 Brown was arrested in Germany by the Gestapo as the war began. After being deemed a harmless exchange student he was released at the Swiss border, complete with his MG sportscar as the Germans “didn’t have any spare parts.” He later became a major asset to the allies as a combat and test pilot, and his fluency in German saw him involved in many interrogations of high-level Nazi war criminals and key German aviation experts.
Brown’s skill as a pilot was in part due to his meticulous preparation and concentration. “Learn her,” he told a fellow pilot, “and then concentrate, concentrate, concentrate!” He never subscribed to the RAF’s dictum of “Kick the tyres, light the fires and the last one off is a sissy.” Brown also used his experience testing captured German aircraft to develop a system to memorize other aircraft layouts and settings. The German’s had standardized, colour coded gauge perimeters, and he would transfer these colour codes onto non-German cockpit gauges with coloured pencils. He would also pencil on the gauges the required rpm and would record only emergency procedures on his knee-pad for quick reference.
Brown’s flight preparation system allowed him to successfully switch between planes for test flights at an astonishing rate. On one particularly busy day he piloted eight different aircraft - a Bell P-63 Kingcobra, Gloster Meteor I, Super marine S.24/37, de Havilland Sea Hornet, Junkers Ju-188, Avro Lancaster, Sikorsky R-4B Gadfly helicopter and Hawker Tempest Mk. V.
Brown’s calm and systematic approach to flying helped him avert certain disaster when test flying a DH.108 Swallow – a tailless, high speed experimental aircraft. The first prototype had previously killed Sir Geoffrey de Havilland’s son. Brown’s flight revealed that the plane developed a violent oscillation in a fast, steep dive. He recalled, "the ride was smooth, then suddenly it all went to pieces ... as the plane porpoised wildly my chin hit my chest, jerked hard back, slammed forward again, repeated it over and over, flogged by the awful whipping of the plane ..." It took all his experience to regain control, and he believed that being short saved him from the broken neck that killed the taller de Havilland. All three of the DH.108 Swallow test aircraft built were lost in fatal crashes.
Brown didn’t always play by the rule book and kept some exploits secret for years for fear of being court martialed.
He was the only Allied pilot to fly the Me-163B Komet under rocket power, after he self-authorised a flight at Husum in June 1945. He knew the Komet would never be allowed to fly in Britain due to it’s highly volatile and corrosive fuel, so took his this as his one and only opportunity to fly the ‘suicidal’ aircraft. He gave the anxious German ground crew a note absolving them of all responsibility, familiarized himself with the rocket motor during a “thunderous” engine run, then took off. The flight he said “felt like being in charge of a runaway train.” After accelerating rapidly to 450mph at a 45 degree climb, simulating a bomber attack at 30,000 feet and running out of rocket fuel, he glided back to the airfield and landed safely.
Another exploit saw him loop a Seafire under the Firth of Forth rail bridge not once, but three times. Brown had been given the job of test landing the Seafire onto the convoy escort carrier HMS Biter in the Firth of Forth; many people thought it couldn’t be done. He said that it went so well he “had a go at looping the plane round all three spans of the Forth Rail Bridge." A lady at Queensferry objected to it and called the Police. He only escaped disciplinary action because the finger was wrongly pointed at the RAF. Their commanding officer demanded the offending pilot own up or they would all be grounded for a week. Of course no one owned up, Brown kept it quiet for years, and no-one before or since has attempted the stunt again.
Brown’s last service flight was another memorable one. It was a search and rescue mission in a Westland S-55 Whirlwind helicopter during a snowy February. The chopper had an engine failure at 800 feet and after going into auto-rotation Brown noticed a three-stranded wire fence and thought, “If I could hook my tail skid to the wire I might make a safe arrested landing.” It worked and once again he walked away from a crash.
His contribution to the advance of naval aviation was immense throughout his flying career and he was awarded the MBE, OBE, CBE, DSC, AFC and QCVSA. He was also made an honorary fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
In retirement he tested flight simulators, including Lockheed-Martin’s F-35 Lightning II simulator and became Chief Executive of the British Helicopter Flying Board. He also wrote many books about his adventures and the aircraft he flew.
He finally handed in his wings at 75 years old in 1994. “It is like drug withdrawal, I imagine. You become a nuisance to your wife after you stop flying. You run around rather demented, not sure what to do with yourself. It really does have a rather powerful effect on you, because you had formerly led this high-intensity, active life. But, finally, I’ve come to terms with it. I’ve tried to replace it. I do a huge amount of lecturing and I’m an international university lecturer. I travel a lot, I lecture a lot, and that keeps me out of trouble. Most of the time.”
Brown passed away in February 2016, just one month short of his 98th birthday.
“In an era of outstanding tests pilots Winkle was simply the best,”
Hawker Chief Test Pilot Bill Humble.