Eric Brown: Wings On My Sleeve

Cover of Wings On My Sleeve by Eric Brown

A new hydraulic-pneumatic catapult was installed which had to be proofed so that its performance could be checked before it was introduced into service. For the first launch with it we used an Avenger as being an old and well-tried faithful. It was a startling maiden effort. The aircraft was shot off so violently that the engine cut and the folding wings unlocked and folded back. It was a nasty sight from the cockpit.

You can’t get much better than test-pilot memoirs, can you? That’s Eric Brown responding with his customary sang-froid to a typical awkward moment in his career—being launched from an aircraft-carrier catapult in an aircraft with a stalled engine and collapsed wings.

Brown’s interest in flying started in 1936 when, on a visit to Germany, he was taken on an aerobatic joyride by Ernst Udet, the First World War flying ace. Brown went on to fly with the Fleet Air Arm at the outbreak of the Second World War, and was part of the early development of flight operations from aircraft carriers. This led on to a posting to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough, where he tested new aircraft and new aircraft launch and landing systems. Under wartime production pressures, there was always a new aircraft to be tested, and Brown was running multiple test programmes simultaneously, to the extent that during one exhausting month he flew thirty different models of aircraft. Towards the end of the war, the fact that he spoke fluent German got him a job picking up abandoned German aircraft and bringing them back to Britain for testing (where they formed the RAE’s “Enemy Flight”). In the post-war period he spent time seconded to both the German Naval Air Arm and the American Naval Air Test Center.

All of this experience meant that he holds a couple of aviation records that are unlikely ever to be beaten, in these more regimented days—the largest number of aircraft types flown (487), and the largest number of aircraft carrier landings (2407).

Wings On My Sleeve is his autobiography, published in 2006, when he was 87 years old.

I chanced upon it in a bookshop in Oban, quite recently, my attention drawn to the aeroplane on the cover—that’s a slightly cartoonish German Messerschmitt Bf 109, but marked up with British roundels. (Close inspection shows the pilot apparently sitting cheerily on the left side of the cockpit, in a single-seat fighter. Brown must have flinched a little when he saw that.) When I figured out it was holding the autobiography of the man who assembled the Enemy Flight, I bought it.

And it’s a marvellous read, full of incident. There’s the occasion when he baled out of a burning aircraft at 1,300 feet, landed in a duckpond, and was then trapped there by an enraged bull circling the pond. The emergency services were of little help until eventually someone found the farmer, who led the bull away. And there’s the time when Brown, through a certain amount of inattention, landed on an aircraft carrier that not only had no deck crew in place and wasn’t properly aligned with the wind, but which didn’t even have arrester wires properly rigged. It’s difficult to know who was the more surprised—Brown or the ship’s captain. And the occasion when he taught himself to fly a helicopter—he had seen one for the first time a few days previously, when he had experienced a twenty-minute flight as a passenger, and had been given a “large orange-coloured booklet” by the American mechanics who had unpacked and assembled his new Sikorsky R-4B Hoverfly. What could possibly go wrong?

While assembling the Enemy Flight, he once got a little ahead of the advancing Allied armies, and landed at Grove airfield in Denmark before it had been liberated. As he climbed out of his Avro Anson, he was alarmed to see a Luftwaffe major walking towards him; but then relieved when the major offered his ceremonial sword in formal surrender. Brown and his copilot then spent an uneasy night as guests of the Luftwaffe, while they waited for the Allied army to catch up with them. On another occasion he managed to “informally” take a flight in the Luftwaffe’s notoriously explosive rocket-plane, the Me 163B Komet—he was the only British pilot ever to fly one, since all subsequent tests were performed using the aircraft as a towed glider, the rocket motor being deemed too dangerous to use.

And there’s also the story of how Squadron Leader Tony Martindale manage to get a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire Mark XI very close to the speed of sound, and lived to tell the tale (but only just):

One day he dived to [Mach] 0.92, at which point he was pulling about 100lb on the control column to recover, when the over-speeding propeller became detached, together with its reduction gear.
The resultant loss of weight at the front end made the Spitfire tail-heavy and it zoomed almost vertically upwards, blacking out the pilot under a force of 11‘g’. When he recovered his sight again Marty found himself back up at about 40,000 feet with his straight-winged aeroplane now having acquired a very slightly swept-back look. It speaks volumes both for the pilot and the Spitfire that Marty somehow managed to land it back at Farnborough on its wheels …

A photograph exists of the aircraft that “Marty” Martindale successfully glided back to base:

Spitfire XI EN 409 which was used in high speed diving trials in 1944

You really can’t get much better than test-pilot memoirs, can you?

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