Legends of Aviation # 14: Captain Eric Brown.
These days, some pilots might think they are a bit special if they have more than one type rating and half a dozen ‘aircraft types flown’ on their CVs. As impressive as that may be, nobody can compare to Capt. Eric Brown, a Royal Navy officer and test pilot who flew 487 different aircraft types as P.I.C. - not including derivatives of any one type!
Eric also holds the world record for the most aircraft carrier deck take-offs and landings performed (2,407 and 2,271 respectively). He flew almost every category of Royal Navy and RAF aircraft, and during the Second World War he flew many types of captured German, Italian, and Japanese aircraft. He was a pioneer of jet technology from its inception.
Born in Edinburgh in 1919, Eric’s father had been a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. Eric’s first flights had been with his father and later with Ernst Udet, a German First World War fighter pilot who he met at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. After an aerobatic demonstration, Udet gave Eric two pieces of advice – Learn to speak German and learn to fly. Both were to be significant in Eric’s later life.
In 1937, Eric entered the University of Edinburgh to study modern languages. He joined the university's air unit and received his first formal flying instruction. He returned to Germany a few months later and was taking part in an exchange student programme near Lake Constance when war broke out in September 1939 and he was expelled from the country.
On returning to the United Kingdom, Eric joined the RAF Reserve, and then the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve as a Fleet Air Arm pilot, posted to 802 Naval Squadron to serve on the escort aircraft carrier HMS Audacity. He flew a Grumman Martlet and shot down two German Focke-Wulf 200 Condors. HMS Audacity was torpedoed and sunk by the Germans in December 1941, and Eric was one of the few survivors rescued after a night spent in the cold North Atlantic. He was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross "For bravery and skill in action against enemy aircraft and in the protection of a Convoy against heavy and sustained enemy attacks".
Eric then resumed operational flying, seconded to the Royal Canadian Air Force, flying escort operations to USAAF B-17 Flying Fortress bombers over France. He trained the pilots in deck-landing techniques and flew with them on fighter operations. In 1943, he went to the Royal Aeronautical Establishment (RAE) to perform experimental flying, and was then transferred to Italy to evaluate captured Regia Aeronautica and Luftwaffe aircraft. Eric did this without tuition other than having information from whatever documents were available. Back at the RAE, Eric worked in the Aerodynamics Flight department at Farnborough. During the first month in the ‘Flight’, Eric flew 13 aircraft types, including a captured German FW-190. He tested the new Sea Hurricane and Seafire and multiple combinations of aircraft types and aircraft carrier landing points. By the end of 1943 he had performed around 1,500 deck landings on 22 different carriers.
Eric in action.
As chief naval test pilot at Farnborough, Eric trialled the deck landing of the DH Sea Mosquito and landed one on HMS Indefatigable in March 1944 – the first ever landing on an aircraft carrier by a twin-engined aircraft. He also flew with Fighter Command in the air defence of Great Britain. At the RAE he was test pilot for their high-speed flight programme, achieving Mach 0.86 in a dive in a Spitfire Mk IX.
Eric had collaborated with Frank Whittle, suggesting improvements to the jet engine for the Gloster Meteor, subsequently selected as the Royal Navy’s first jet fighter. On 2 May 1944, he was appointed MBE "for outstanding enterprise and skill in piloting aircraft during hazardous aircraft trials."
At the end of the war in 1945, the RAE sought to acquire German aeronautical technology, in particular the Arado Ar234 jet bomber, and being fluent in German language, Eric was made the commanding officer of "Operation Enemy Flight". Some of the jets were based at Grove airfield in Denmark and following the surrender of the airfield by the Germans, Eric took charge of the base and its staff of 2,000 men until the arrival of the allied forces. Then he and his colleagues ferried twelve Ar 234s to Farnborough. Eric later test-flew captured German and Italian aircraft. He is one of the few men to have been qualified to compare both Allied and Axis aeroplanes as they flew during the war. He flight-tested 53 German aircraft, including the Me 163 Komet rocket fighter.
During this period, Eric was asked to help interrogate Josef Kramer and Irma Grese, the former commandant of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, and his assistant. "Two more loathsome creatures it is hard to imagine" he said and further describing the latter as "... the worst human being I have ever met." Kramer and Grese were later tried and hanged for war crimes. He also helped interview other infamous Nazis after the war, including Hermann Goering, Willy Messerschmitt and Ernst Heinkel.
Eric continued testing aircraft after the war. In 1948, he was awarded the Boyd Trophy for his work in trials for the rubber deck landing system. On 12 August 1949, he was testing the third of three Saunders Ror SR.A/1 jet-powered flying-boat fighter prototypes, when he struck submerged debris, which resulted in the aircraft sinking near the Isle of Wight. He was pulled unconscious from the cockpit of the wrecked aircraft having been knocked out in the crash. He was promoted to the naval ranks of Lieutenant-Commander in April 1951, Commander in December 1953 and Captain in December 1960. He was also appointed OBE.
In the 1950s during the Korean War, Eric spent two years in the US, where he flew a number of American aircraft, including 36 types of helicopter. In 1954 he became commander (Air) of RNAS Brawdy, where he remained until returning to Germany in late 1957, becoming Chief of British Naval Mission to Germany. Later he spent three months as a test pilot for Focke-Wulf company. In September 1967 he took his last appointment in the Royal Navy, when he took command of HMS Fulmar, the Royal Naval Air Station. He was appointed Naval Aide de Camp to the Queen in 1969 and CBE in the 1970 new year honours, retiring from the Royal Navy later in 1970
Eric wrote several books about his life and experiences. He served as president of the Royal Aeronautical Society from 1982–83, and was giving lectures and interviews until well on in his 90s. He died on 21st February 2016, aged 97. The record of Eric Brown, that of flying so many different aircraft types, is unlikely ever to be surpassed. A statue of him stands outside Edinburgh Airport in Scotland and he will never be forgotten.