Ever think that our lives are a little humdrum, run of the mill periods with few meaningful achievements?
Well, this morning as I drove into work I caught “Desert Island Discs” on the radio, and, it being their 3000th programme, they’d put a little effort into finding someone worthy of the honour…
Step forward one Captain “Winkle” Brown… I had the pleasure of listening to an interview with this chap last year, so I had some idea of what I was getting.
Amongst Brown’s achievements in his life:
* In 1937, he’s taken up in a plane, and told he has the temperament to become a fighter pilot – by a former World War 1 fighter ace. On Germany’s side!
* When Britain declared war in 1939, he was an exchange student – in Germany. He was arrested by the SS, who escorted him to the border, and let him keep his sportscar!
* In 1941 he joins HMS Audacity as a naval pilot. Audacity is sunk by a German U-Boat, leaving only two survivors. He’s one of them.
* He then gets involved in testing and researching carrier landings – commonly regarded in aviation as one of the riskiest manoeuvres there is. By 1943, he’s performed over 1,500 of them on 22 seperate carriers. He still, even now, holds the record for the most carrier landings a pilot has ever achieved.
* In 1943 he gets involved in training Canadian pilots in carrier landings, though not on carriers. He arranges a return favour where they take him along on actual fighter missions in return… BALLS OF SOLID GRANITE!
* Despite everything else he was doing, he also found time to involve himself in a minor little skirmish known as “The Battle Of Britain”!
* He then gets involved in evaluating captured enemy aircraft. Being wartime, he gets by without the luxuries – like training… He just makes do with whatever manuals he finds lying around in the aircraft!
* His superiors are so in awe of his performance that he’s immediately sent off to become a test pilot. In his first month alone, he flies 13 different *types* of aircraft.
* He performs the first ever landing of a twin-engined aircraft on a carrier. The stall speed of the aircraft is 30 knots above the maximum landing speed for the carrier. Not a problem – Winkle’s on the stick!
* He becomes the chief naval test pilot…
* Test pilots like pushing the envelope, and Winkle is no exception. He gets involved in high velocity projects, and flies at Mach 0.86! Don’t think that’s remarkable? He didn’t use a jet! This guy did it in a spitfire! Wood and canvas for heaven’s sake…
* Diverted to RAF Cranwell in bad weather, he accidentally meets Frank Whittle – inventor of the jet engine. Frank knows a good thing when he sees it – and asks Winkle how the jet engine can be improved for naval use!
* In September 1943 he performs a carrier landing without the arrester hook in position (down to a faulty indicator light, not down to Winkle). The resulting crash into the crash barrier shears off the undercarriage and shreds the propeller. Winker himself of course is made of sterner stuff, dusts himself down, and walks off UNSCATHED!
* In February 1945 he’s shown a helicopter, and taken up as passenger. A few days later he’s sent to RAF Speke to collect one. Of course, this being Winkle, there’s no need to bother with any of that tedious “Learning to fly a helicopter” malarky. The mechanics throw him a “large orange-coloured booklet” to read, and off he goes – IN FORMATION!
* As the European war is winding down, he’s sent off to a German airbase in Denmark to collect some enemy aircraft to look at. Sadly, the allied troops who are supposed to be liberating the base get delayed, so as Winkle touches down, this is a fully operational German airbase. The German commander does the only sensible thing, and surrenders to Winkle immediately!
* As a German speaker, and has someone who isn’t exactly known as a shrinking violet, he interrogates several of the officers at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp following its liberation…
* He’s quite an effective interrogator – so much so that after the war he also “interviews” Wernher von Braun and Hermann Göring. Of course, he still needed to get around – so he takes Himmler’s personal aircraft…
* When Geoffery DeHaviland is killed testing his DeHaviland 108, someone needs to recreate the powered dive at close to Mach 1 he was performing at the time. Sensibly enough, they decide to ask if Winkle might be free… Winkle is cheerfully getting on with the business of performing a power dive, at Mach 0.88, at only 4’000 feet when all hell breaks loose – the aircraft shuddering so violently that Winkle’s chin is banging off his chest. This would kill a regular mortal – but Winkle sees the Lord by appointment only – so he recovered the aircraft!
* When the navy decided to perform the world’s first ever landing of a jet aircraft on a carrier, there was no way they would even consider giving to job to anyone else…
* You know the steam catapult that the Americans use for flinging aircraft aloft from their carriers? Who do you suppose showed them how it worked?
* When it came time to resurrect German naval aviation, Winkle was sent over to supervise and provide guidance. The navy only had one plane that was exclusively for their use. They gave it to Winkle…
* When we wanted to persuade the Americans of the concept of an angled flight deck on aircraft carriers, we sent Winkle. Nine months later, the Yanks built it.
* He wasn’t just a stick jockey either – rising to become a naval captain in 1967, taking command of HMS Fulmar, followed by naval air station (and later RAF) Lossiemouth.
* In his career, he has flown 487 different types of aircraft – and it’s important that we now define what a “type” is. For example, he flew fourteen different versions of the Spitfire and Seafire – but these are only regarded as one type. Also, the 487 count only includes flights where he was “Captain In Command”. Co-pilot doesn’t count.
* Obviously, he holds the record for the highest number of types of aircraft flown by a single individual. It’s generally accepted throughout the aviation industry that this record will stand until the end of time.
A truly amazing man, and I’m struck by the fact that I only learned of him last year, when I happened to be listening to “iPM” on Radio 4 one Saturday evening… The kids need to be learning about folks like this at school!