Over 650 guests, including veterans from all three Services and many eminent names from the history of aviation, attended the commemorative event hosted by the Fly Navy Heritage Trust at RNAS Yeovilton on 21 July to celebrate the life and achievements of the world’s greatest test pilot, Captain Eric Brown CBE DSC AFC Royal Navy.
The event, which included tributes from HRH The Duke of York KG, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones KCB ADC, Captain Brown’s son, Glenn, as well as representatives from across all reaches of the aviation industry, also featured a farewell send-off of over fifty flying and static aircraft, representing many of the aircraft types that Captain Eric Brown flight-tested during his remarkable career.“It was an aircraft display with a focus dedicated specifically to the life and influence of Captain Eric Brown” said Rear Admiral Keith Blount, OBE, Assistant Chief of Naval staff (Aviation, Amphibious Capability and Carriers) and Rear Admiral Fleet Air Arm. “As such, it was a uniquely rare collection and with the generous support of our sponsors and donors, we were able to demonstrate not just the wide spectrum of aircraft that Captain Brown had test flown but the evolutionary story of military aircraft development, particularly carrier borne aircraft. All the categories of aircraft including gliders, fighters, bombers, VSTOL and helicopters were represented. Only the amphibians and rocket powered aircraft were missing. Even so, we were still only able to represent just over ten percent of the record 487 aircraft types he flew.”
As Robert Hardman of the Daily Mail said “It was not so much a flying display, as a roll call of aviation history! . . . Vampire, Sea Vixen, Martlet, Mustang, MiG, Hurricane, Lancaster . . .”
Captain Brown was the Royal Navy’s chief test pilot from 1944-49 at the time when Britain was constantly striving to keep ahead of its enemies in the field of aviation. The impetus of war accelerated technological advancement and progress to an unprecedented degree, resulting in the advent of the jet age and the pioneering development of supersonic flight. In his own words, Captain Brown was ‘right in the thick of it’ testing up to eight different aircraft types in a day. Such a goal demanded personal dedication and often personal sacrifice, and there was no shortage of such qualities in Brown. He led from the front and in June 1945 alone, he flew 30 different types of aircraft! After the war he went on to investigate the advanced aviation technology discovered in the Third Reich where he flew more Luftwaffe aircraft than almost any German pilot, even surviving a flight in a lethal rocket powered plane, the Me-163. German aeronautical technology had a marked influence on post war aircraft design and Brown was again in the forefront of this critical effort.
The air display opened with a tribute to Captain Brown’s lifelong interest and connection with Germany and German aviation with two Bücker Jungmann and a Bücker Jungmeister in full Luftwaffe livery. It was a flight in a Bücker Jungmann in 1936, with Ernst Udet, the second-highest scoring German flying ace of World War One that inspired Eric, then 17 years old, to become a fighter pilot.The next aircraft to display was the Tiger Moth pair, sister of the Gypsy Moth in which Eric learnt to fly in the Edinburgh University Air Squadron. The Tiger Moth pair was followed by the Grumman F4F Wildcat, an aircraft that had a special place in Captain Eric Brown’s heart. This American carrier-based fighter, known in the Royal Navy as the Martlet, came into service in 1940 and was flown by Captain Eric Brown in 802 Naval Air Squadron in the carrier HMS Audacity. “I loved the Martlet. She was a spirited and rugged little aeroplane and an outstanding ship-borne naval fighter in the early years of the war” said Captain Eric Brown. Eric survived the sinking of HMS Audacity in December 1941 when she was sunk with great loss of life by a German U-boat. “No flying display in tribute to Captain Eric Brown would be complete without the Martlet,” said Commander Mitchell, “and we are grateful to The Fighter Collection and pilot Pete Kynsey for donating a superb display in Captain Brown’s memory.”
In a never before seen display of past and present Wildcats, ‘Winkle’s Wildcat’ was then joined by two present day AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcats – The Black Cats display team – flying the Royal Navy’s latest ship borne helicopter.
Next to perform was the Fairey Swordfish Mk 1 W5856 flown by Lieutenant Simon Wilson Royal Navy, the only pilot serving today, to have over 100 hours flying the Swordfish. Captain Brown did numerous deck landing trials in the Swordfish and the aircraft played a vital part in the Battle of the Atlantic performing superbly from the small decks of converted merchant ships, acting as makeshift aircraft carriers.
Continuing the development of carrier aviation in the Second World War, the next aircraft in the flying display was the Hawker Hurricane. This aircraft represented the development of the Hurricane and Spitfire into the Sea Hurricane and Seafire, which included revolutionary work on rocket and catapult launches from merchant ships and aircraft carriers providing desperately needed air cover in the mid-Atlantic gap during the Battle of the Atlantic. The evolutionary story continued with a display by the Sea Hurricane demonstrating the growing importance of naval air power. Sea Hurricanes were used extensively in the Mediterranean flying from fleet and escort carriers defending convoys taking supplies to Malta. Donated by the Shuttleworth Collection, the Sea Hurricane display was flown by Frank Chapman, a test pilot for Airbus developing the Airbus A380. Captain Eric Brown not only flew over 400 types of aeroplane but was also a pioneering helicopter pilot. As chief naval test pilot at RAE Farnborough in 1945, he taught himself to fly and evaluate the Sikorsky Hoverfly R-4. Eric subsequently flew more than 30 types of helicopter and was the chief executive of the British Helicopter Advisory Board and European Helicopter Association. The helicopter trio of Alouette II, Gazelle HT2 and Sea King Mk7 ASaC represented this phase of his career and his part in the development of helicopters.
Following the helicopters was the AVRO Lancaster representing the many multi-engine heavy airliners and bombers that Eric tested and developed. Eric was one of only two people to have ‘barrel-rolled’ a Lancaster. The Battle of Britain ‘classic’ flew with her bomb bay doors open to the delight of spectators including Barnes Wallis’ daughter, who was among the guests at the commemorative event. The Lancaster was followed by the North American Texan T-6 and the P51 Mustang signifying Eric’s strong bond with the USA. The Mustang particularly illustrated the direct effect Eric was able to have assisting General Doolittle in stemming USAAF combat losses over Germany. He evaluated the manoeuvring characteristics of the Mustang, Thunderbolt and Lightning – and having recommended the Mustang as the most capable of the three – enabled General Doolittle to change the escort fighter tactics, reducing American losses. Captain Brown’s influence made many aircraft safer, and speaking at the commemorative event, The Duke of York said “Far fewer aviators have lost their lives as a result of Eric.” Many of Eric’s 2,407 deck landings were carried out in the US and another of his contributions whilst in the US was to demonstrate the British steam catapult to the Americans. It is now fitted as standard on all US carriers. Next on was the Russian Yak-3 with the MiG-15 on its wing. Captain Brown had flown several varieties of both and this combination symbolised Eric’s contribution to Axis and Allied aircraft assessment over three decades.
The highlight of the display followed – the de Havilland Pair – the Fly Navy Heritage Trust’s Sea Vixen FAW2 XP924 flying in formation with the Vampire. It was while flying Sea Vampire LZ551/G on 3 December 1945, that Captain Brown made aviation history by becoming the first man to land a jet on an aircraft carrier, heralding a new age in carrier flying for Britain and the world. The Vampire was donated for the commemorative event by the Royal Norwegian Historic Flight. Both the Vampire and Sea Vixen also gave beautiful solo displays, the Vampire also representing the work Eric achieved during trials with a rubber coated flight deck while the Sea Vixen epitomised the height of British naval aviation design and development in the 50s and early 60s.
The theme throughout the day was the huge influence Captain Eric Brown has had on past, present and future military aviation. This was borne out in the penultimate display by the Typhoon linking Captain Eric Brown’s great legacy with the future. Today’s Royal Navy pilots are flying both the Typhoon with the RAF and training on the F-18 and AV-8B with the US Navy and US Marine Corps in preparation for flying the F-35 Lightning II from the next generation of aircraft carriers. The finale to the afternoon was the formation display by four Royal Navy Hawks from 736 Naval Air Squadron RNAS Culdrose who closed the event with the poignant ‘missing man’ manoeuvre, the aerial salute traditionally given to a fallen pilot. The formation flew in low over the ceremony as one aircraft split away and flew up into the clouds and out of sight. There could be no more fitting farewell to Captain Eric Brown as the world said goodbye to the greatest pilot of all time.
A short film from the day can be seen on the Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton Facebook page, posted on Friday, 22 July 2016 here:
Commemoration of Captain Eric Winkle Brown CBE DSC AFC RN 1919-2016
A full list of aircraft in the flying and static display is as follows:
Aérospatiale Alouette 2
BAE Systems Typhoon
British Aerospace Hawk
De Havilland Sea Vixen
De Havilland Tiger Moth
De Havilland Vampire
Hawker Sea Hurricane
North American Mustang
North American Texan
Westland Sea King
Westland Merlin Mk 3 Photo chase
British Aerospace Sea Harrier
British Aircraft Corporation Strikemaster
Beechcraft Super King Air
de Havilland Beaver
de Havilland Chipmunk
de Havilland Gypsy Moth
de Havilland Vampire
Hawker Sea Fury
Hawker Sea Hawk
McDonnell Douglas Phantom
Schelbe Rotax Falke
Scottish Aviation Bulldog