As a pilot in the British navy, Capt. Eric Brown mastered the Sea Otter, Starfighter, Swordfish, Spitfire and Sea Vampire — and almost every other type of military plane manufactured from the propeller era to the jet age.
Soaring in the de Havilland Hornet of the 1940s and ’50s, he said, was “like flying a Ferrari in the sky.” And in the faster-than-sound F-86 Sabre, he said, “you feel you’re part of the air.”
A test pilot nonpareil, Capt. Brown flew 487 different types of aircraft and made 2,407 landings on an aircraft carrier — both world records that “will never be equalled, not in a million years,” said the writer and World War II historian James Holland. First Sea Lord George Zambellas, who heads the Royal navy, called Capt. Brown “the most accomplished test pilot of his generation, and perhaps of all time.”
Capt. Brown — whose small build earned him the nickname “Winkle,” after the thumbnail-sized mollusk — died Feb. 21 at a hospital in Redhill, England. He was 97.
The cause was not yet known, said a friend, Paul Beaver.
Though he handled gliders, fighters, bombers and amphibious craft, Capt. Brown was perhaps most renowned for his skill in landing jets on carriers.
He became the first person to successfully take off and land a jet on a carrier when he guided a de Havilland Sea Vampire onto the Royal navy ship Ocean in 1945. With the Ocean in constant motion, landing the plane was like being “a matchbox floating in a bath,” he told BBC Radio 4 in 2013.
Explaining the difficulty of the maneuver, Capt. Brown noted that in wartime, the plane must make it back to the ship in radio silence, without guidance, to prevent the ship from revealing its position to the enemy.
“When you get back,” he continued, “that’s only the beginning of your problems. You’ve got to land maybe on a pitching ship in heavy seas. At one stage we had one incident in every nine landings. I call it a game of Russian roulette.”
Capt. Brown considered carrier landings among a pilot’s most demanding maneuvers. He recalled that the U.S. Navy once gave a pilot the job of breaking his record of 2,407 landings: “To his everlasting credit he got up to 1,600 and then had a nervous breakdown.”
With characteristic good humor, Capt. Brown added: “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 the port town of Leith, Scotland, just outside of Edinburgh, on Jan. 21, 1919. His father, a pilot, served in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I and later in the Royal Air Force. He took Capt. Brown flying for the first time at age 8, in an open-cockpit biplane.
He was instantly smitten with flight. In 1936, he accompanied his father to the Summer Olympics in Berlin, where a teenage Capt. Brown was invited to fly with Ernst Udet, a German ace who downed 62 Allied planes during World War I.
Udet, impressed that Capt. Brown failed to lose his lunch after their acrobatic flight, told him he ought to learn German and, just as important, learn to fly.
So he did.
At the University of Edinburgh, he studied modern languages and trained in flight through a Royal Air Force program. His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II in 1939, when Capt. Brown volunteered for the navy’s Fleet Air Arm. He returned to Edinburgh after the war and graduated in 1947.
Capt. Brown was on board the escort carrier Audacity when the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Bay of Biscay in 1941. He and the ship’s other pilot, buoyed by inflatable “Mae West” life jackets that had not been given to the ship’s 22-person sailing crew, were the only survivors of the attack.
The next year, he married Evelyn “Lynn” Macrory while on “survivor’s leave” from the Audacity. She died in 1998. Survivors include a companion, Jean Kelly, and a son from his marriage.
In 1942, Capt. Brown was selected as a test pilot for the Royal Aircraft Establishment, a now-defunct research and development office.
Fluent in German, he traveled to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the close of the war, where the Nazis killed about 50,000 Jews and other prisoners.
While in Germany, he interrogated aviation experts such as Wernher von Braun, who invented the V-2 rocket and later helped engineer NASA’s Apollo space program, and Hermann Göring, a World War I ace who led the Luftwaffe under Hitler and became one of the Nazi Party’s highest leaders.
Within a year of their meeting, Göring was condemned to hang as a war criminal at the Nuremberg trials. He committed suicide in 1946.
Capt. Brown served as a test pilot until retiring in 1970. In a 2013 interview with BBC Radio 4, he credited his longevity in a job that killed many of the finest pilots of the day to his “meticulous” preparation and his height, a relatively short 5-foot-7.
On at least three occasions, he said, he would have lost his legs had he not been able to curl them beneath his seat.
Where other pilots would say, “Kick your tires, light your fires, and the last one off’s a sissy,” Capt. Brown took a far less cavalier attitude to his job. He made a point of studying planes before stepping into the cockpit and of planning his response to possible worst-case scenarios.
Capt. Brown retired to the town of Copthorne, England, and was appointed a commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1970. He became the director general of what was then the British Helicopter Advisory Board, a trade association, and in 1982 was named president of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
He told BBC Radio 4 that he took his last flight in 1994 and found it difficult to stop, comparing the experience to that of a drug addict’s withdrawal.
“It’s an exhilarating world to live in,” he said. “There’s always that aura of a risk. You come to value life in a slightly different way.”
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