Celebrated British WWII Hero Eric Brown, Who Set World Records As A Test Pilot, Dies At 97

Eric “Winkle” Brown, a celebrated WWII hero who set three records during his time as a combat and test pilot — neither of which have ever been broken — has died. Brown was 97-years-old.

Celebrated as the most decorated pilot in the history of the Fleet Air Arm — Britain’s naval aviation service — Captain Eric Brown had flown everything from biplanes to experimental rocket planes, in a career that spanned more than three decades. Captain Brown had flown so many different types of aircraft, in fact, that he holds the world record for that particular feat — a whopping 487 distinct types. He also holds the world record for most landings on an aircraft carrier — 2,407 — including being the first person to take off and land a jet plane on an aircraft carrier, reports the Washington Post.

Captain Eric Brown considered landing on aircraft carriers one of a pilot’s most difficult tasks, saying that at one point in his career there was one “incident in every nine landings,” and calling it a game of “Russian Roulette.” In an interview with BBC Radio 4 in 2013, Brown likened landing on a carrier in the middle of the ocean to a matchbox floating in a bathtub. During wartime, he added, pilots had to land their planes in complete radio silence, and without guidance, lest the ship give up its whereabouts to the enemy.

Proud of his achievements and the records he held, the WWII hero recalled in the interview with BBC Radio 4 the story of the U.S. Navy tasking one of its pilots with breaking Brown’s record of 2,407 aircraft carrier landings.

“To his everlasting credit he got up to 1,600 and then had a nervous breakdown. I can see his problem. Being given a job to beat a record is very different from just accruing along.”

Eric Melrose Brown was born in 1919, in Leith, Scotland. His father, Robert Brown, had been a pilot during World War I, and would spend hours regaling young Eric with stories of his pilot days. According to the BBC, when Eric was around 8-years-old, Robert took him flying for the first time in an Gloster Gauntlet — an open cockpit, one-seat biplane — with the younger Brown sitting on his father’s knee. From then on, he was hooked.

“It was exhilarating. You saw the earth from a completely different standpoint.”

In 1936, the 17-year-old Brown accompanied his father to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, where he met Ernst Udet, a German fighter ace, who invited the teenager to take a flight with him. When Eric Brown took to the air acrobatics with all the grace of a natural pilot, rather than get sick to his stomach like Udet expected, Udet told the teenager that he should do two things: Learn to speak German, and learn to fly. So, Brown did both.

After high school, Eric attended the University of Edinburgh, where he majored in modern languages with an emphasis on German. While there, he also trained to be a pilot through the school’s Royal Air Force Program. In 1939, while in Germany on an exchange student program, Eric Brown was arrested by the SS, and interrogated for three days. He was eventually released and was escorted to the Swiss border. Brown retuned to Scotland, and volunteered for the Navy’s Fleet Air Arm.

In 1941, Eric Brown was one of only two survivors aboard the aircraft carrier H.M.S Audacity, that was downed when it was hit by a torpedo from a German U-Boat, reports the New York Times. While on “survivor’s leave” from the Audacity, Brown married Evelyn MacRory, with whom he had a son. Evelyn died in 1998.

When WWII ended, Brown travelled to Germany to visit the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where Nazis had imprisoned and killed roughly 50,000 Jews and other prisoners. While in Germany, because of his fluency in the language, he was given the task of interrogating Nazi aviation experts like Wernher Von Braun — the inventor of the V-2 rocket, who later helped NASA with the Apollo space program — and Hermann Göring, an ace pilot and one of the highest leaders of the Nazi party. A year after his interrogation with Brown, Göring was charged as a war criminal at the Nuremberg trials, and was set to hang for his crimes. He committed suicide in 1946, before his punishment could be carried out.

After 31 years in service, the British WWII hero retired in 1970, and was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 1982, Captain Brown was named President of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown, the celebrated British WWII hero, died in hospital in Redhill, England, on February 21. He is survived by his companion, Jean Kelly, and his son.

[Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]