Eric Brown, 97; record-breaking British pilot and World War II hero

Test-pilot Captain Eric "Winkle" Brown at Farnborough, England, in 2013.
Andrew Matthews/Associated Press/file
Test-pilot Captain Eric "Winkle" Brown at Farnborough, England, in 2013.

NEW YORK — Eric Melrose Brown, a renowned British navy test pilot who shattered records and made history with exploits that advanced Allied fighter power in World War II and quests for jet propulsion and supersonic speeds in postwar aviation, died Sunday in southern England. He was 97.

His test flights established the North American P-51 Mustang as the fast and maneuverable fighter-escort that smothered the Luftwaffe in dogfights late in the war and gave top cover for Allied bombing runs into Germany.

His work also demonstrated that aircraft carriers escorting Allied shipping could successfully protect convoys from enemy air attacks. And he amassed information that influenced the designs of many Western aircraft, and of aircraft carriers, during and after the war.


In a career that spanned an era from biplanes to the threshold of space flight, Mr. Brown, by his own accounts and Royal Navy records, flew 487 distinct types of aircraft, more than any pilot in history, and he set a world record of 2,407 landings on aircraft carriers, including the first by a jet plane.

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He was also the most decorated pilot in the history of the Fleet Air Arm, Britain’s naval aviation service.

“Not you again!” King George VI quipped in 1947, when the 28-year-old flier appeared at Buckingham Palace for a fourth royal recognition in a roll of honors that eventually included his designation by Queen Elizabeth II as a Commander of the British Empire, the rank just below a knighthood.

Mr. Brown, a Scot who flew combat missions over Britain, Continental Europe, and the Atlantic, and who was the Royal Navy’s chief test pilot for many years, retired from active duty in 1970, after 31 years of service, a hero to generations of military and aviation enthusiasts. His exploits were recounted in a half-dozen books, including a memoir, “Wings on My Sleeve.”

His experiences often bordered on the improbable. He was caught in Germany and arrested by the Gestapo as the war began in 1939, but after several days of interrogation he was released at the Swiss border as a harmless exchange student — only to become a major asset to the Allies as a combat and test pilot.


He was no daredevil. Relying on superb flying skills and careful estimates of the dangers, he performed screaming power dives, breathtaking pull-ups, acrobatic rolls, high-altitude climbs, and chases into the unknown to discover the speed limits and flight characteristics of warplanes. He also trained hundreds of pilots to land on the decks of aircraft carriers.

Mr. Brown survived the sinking of his first escort carrier, HMS Audacity, which was torpedoed off Brittany by U-boats on the night of Dec. 21, 1941. He bobbed in the icy Atlantic with a life jacket for three hours before being rescued.

He rarely bailed out, but said he survived 11 crashes — mostly hard landings on carrier decks as his plane broke through arresting wires, lost its landing gear, and skidded to a jolting halt with crumpled wings and nose. There were also splashdowns at sea, including one low-altitude stall that sent his plane spinning into the Firth of Forth as Prime Minister Winston Churchill looked on.

With the war nearly over, Mr. Brown flew to a major Nazi base in Denmark to test-fly a German jet bomber. He expected the Germans to be gone, but he landed at a still-operational Luftwaffe base. He had only a pistol, but the base commander offered to surrender, and the captain took charge of the base and of 2,000 prisoners until Allied ground forces arrived the next day.

After V-E Day, the captain, because of his language and aviation expertise, was assigned to interrogate the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, the Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering, the aircraft designers Willy Messerschmitt and Ernst Heinkel, and many Nazi fliers.


Mr. Brown flew about 50 captured German aircraft, including a jet bomber and an experimental rocket plane, exploring many advanced German technologies that were used in postwar aviation designs. In the 1950s, he helped rebuild West Germany’s air power.

Sent to the United States, he proposed British innovations for aircraft carriers that proved useful to the US Navy, including catapults and upturned decks for easier takeoffs.

In 1946, he achieved a speed of 750 miles per hour in a jet power dive from 45,000 feet. He might have been the first to break the sound barrier as chief test pilot for the Miles M.52, a bullet-like jet designed to fly 1,000 miles per hour. But Britain canceled the project and gave its research to the United States.

The American Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, Mach 1, on Oct. 14, 1947, flying about 760 miles per hour.

Mr. Brown was only 5 feet 7 inches tall — colleagues called him “Winkle,” for periwinkle — yet he radiated quiet confidence. In interviews, lectures, and public appearances, he was often asked about his fears and feelings in an airplane.

“I don’t frighten easily,” he told BAE Systems in a 2012 interview. “If a pilot has this perfect harmony of control, you feel you’re bonded with it, really. You’ve got into it and the airplane welcomes you and says ‘Thank God you’ve come, you’re part of me anyway,’ and to fly like that is a sheer delight.”