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Obituary: Eric “Winkle” Brown  

2016-03-12 23:40:58|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Know your enemy

Eric “Winkle” Brown, test pilot, died on February 21st, aged 97

AT 17, Eric Brown had flown only once before: on his father’s lap in a one-seater Gloster biplane, when he was eight. This time the biplane was a Bücker Jungmann two-seater, and the pilot strapped him in with particular care. Nice of him, he thought. Minutes later, the aircraft was somersaulting like a performing flea: for the pilot was Ernst Udet, a German flying ace of the first world war. He clapped Eric heartily on the shoulder as he stumbled out and roared “Hals und Beinbruch!” Broken neck, broken legs, but you’re alive!

The old fighter pilots’ motto summed up Captain Brown’s career. In the course of it he flew 487 different types of aircraft, most of them prototypes. He changed planes so often that he kept a loose-leaf folder, meticulously handwritten, of all the different cockpit layouts, hydraulics and emergency drills, to try to keep on top of things. Many of these craft he operated on aircraft-carriers; he clocked up 2,407 carrier landings and 2,721 take-offs, both world records. He tested the earliest helicopters, jets and rocket-powered machines. His working life took him from the wood-and-canvas craft in which he started with the Fleet Air Arm, to overseeing training on the nuclear strike force at Lossiemouth in the 1960s. The rising arc of power and accuracy was so steep that it astonished him.

In a glamorous trade he cut a neat, practical figure, but there was no lack of dash. He flew Spitfires into the black heart of cumulonimbus clouds to discover why aircraft often emerged from them in bits. He crash-landed aircraft without undercarriages, to see if that was a good idea. On aircraft-carriers he had to contend with too-short flight decks, pitching seas, failing to hook on the arrester wires or crashing into the barrier. He was such a dab hand, though, that he sometimes came in sideways, crab-wise, without a batsman, to glide to a perfect stop. And then he would wander off grinning. When he made the first-ever jet-aircraft landing on the carrier Ocean, screaming down in his favourite Vampire in December 1945, it was just such touch-down perfection, though the sea was so high that he had been ordered not to attempt it. Well, he wasn’t going to let the Americans do it first.He faced his own demise on a regular basis. His de Havilland 108 once started oscillating so fast that he was blacking out, and just saved himself by pulling both sticks in time. His jet-powered flying-boat crashed into debris off Cowes and trapped him under water; others got him out. In a Tempest V his propeller froze in mid-flight and the engine caught fire. As a Scot, short on words but not confidence, he tended to react with a calm joke or two: “Let’s sort this out,” he would say to himself. This time, with his feet slow-roasting, he jumped. The slipstream was so strong that he had to catapult himself clear, landing in a duckpond. In short, accidents were ten a penny. He survived for two reasons: he was careful, and he was small. Small enough to curl up in a cockpit, rather than get his legs sheared off. Hence “Winkle”.

A bump on landing

All through the war the Germans kept one step ahead with aviation technology. As each new threat appeared, he had to work out how to counter it. On the aircraft-carrierAudacity in the north Atlantic in 1941 he was pitting fiery, beautiful little Martlets against Focke-Wulf Kurier bombers; he found the only way to dispatch them was to go for them head-on, shattering the windscreen to kill the pilots. When V1 flying bombs appeared he discovered that, by overtaking very close in a Tempest V, he could clip their wings with his own and send them plunging into the Channel.

It struck him as strange that his life’s obsession had become to beat the Germans. That jaunt with Udet had sealed his passion for flying (though he already loved speed, and was the only boy at Edinburgh Royal High to ride a Norton 500cc motorbike). Udet had also inspired him to learn German and to teach there for a while. He admired the Germans for their industry and ingenuity. A colossal amount of both had been poured into fighter aviation.

At the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough after the war he studied and flew many of these experimental machines. German experts helped him. In France he worked with them to fix and fly the Dornier 335, the fastest piston-engine aircraft. He searched for, and found, the top-secret Me 262, the world’s first operational jet fighter, so swift and with such a punch that he felt untouchable. He also test-flew the suicidally dangerous Me 163B, powered with rocket fuel so volatile that a bump on landing could explode the plane; its design became the basis of craft that could attempt supersonic flight. Having tried all these, and survived, he was the natural choice to train a new generation of German test pilots in the late 1950s.

In those years he came across Luftwaffe aces whom, as a boy, he would have idolised. Having seen the walking dead of Bergen-Belsen, he was not about to repeat that mistake. But his job could be summed up as “Know the enemy” and in a way he had indeed come to know them, in that fellowship of death-defying souls. So when in 1945 he went to interrogate Hermann Goering, and at the end the ex-Reichsmarschall made to shake hands, Winkle cried instead “Hals und Beinbruch!” And they both tentatively smiled.

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