Interview: Captain Eric Brown

Ad: This forum contains affiliate links to products on Amazon and eBay. More information in Terms and rules

syscom3

Pacific Historian
14,811
10,923
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA
Interview: Captain Eric Brown

No test pilot in history has amassed a track record to compare with that of Captain Eric Brown, whose 31-year career with Britain's Royal Navy included a stint during World War II as the chief test pilot at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, England -- the country's primary flight research facility. Brown, now 86 years old and retired, flew a stunning 487 different types of aircraft, a feat that puts him in the GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS -- and is not, he says, likely ever to be repeated. "One must understand that it was obtained in unusual circumstances, " he says. "I was chief test pilot at our main research establishment for the war years and every type of aircraft that one could think of -- from Britain and the United States, and captured aircraft from Germany, Italy, and Japan -- passed through our hands."

After the war, Brown continued to fly new aircraft as part of the surge in civilian aeronautics. "We got very involved in that," Brown says, "and particularly in helping countries in Europe which had been devastated during World War II and had no facilities, or testing facilities, or pilots to assess their aircraft. Also, one must remember that this was the beginning of the jet era and we were in that tremendously fascinating period when we were transforming from piston-engine aircraft to jet aircraft, and learning the problems they produced -- which were few, but there were some -- and finding out how to operate these. So it was a very formative time."

For Brown, the flying bug struck early. He took his first flight when he was eight years old. At the controls was his father, who had been a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I. "We spoke a lot about flying and this was the fundamental reason for my interest," Brown says. Brown learned to fly on his own while a student at Edinburgh University in Scotland.

"In Britain we have things called university air squadrons and the major universities have a squadron set up by the Royal Air Force in which you are given flying training free of charge," he says. The Air Force hopes that at the end of the period, when you've received your wings, you will stay with them. But you are under no obligation to do so. I started to fly when I was almost 18, and from that point on there wasn't any doubt that this was what I wanted to do."

During his career, Brown had the opportunity to test both jets and their predecessors, piston-engine aircraft. Although he learned to fly on the older piston-engine models, he quickly jumped on the jet bandwagon. "The jet is the much better aircraft because it is basically an engine with many many fewer moving parts than piston-engine aircraft, so therefore it must be fundamentally more reliable," he says. Also, if you wish to increase the power, it is almost limitless with the jet engine, whereas the piston-engine almost reached the limit of its power by the end of World War II. Also, the piston-engine can never go supersonic, because it is associated with a propeller and the drag of that propeller will prevent it from going supersonic."

The Messerschmitt 163, the revolutionary "flying bomb" dreamed up by German aircraft designer Helmut Walter during World War II, and featured in SECRETS OF THE DEAD: "The Hunt for Nazi Scientists," was neither a traditional piston-driven aircraft nor a jet; it ran on rocket fuel.

"Revolutionary it undoubtedly was. It was very innovative and had a lot of extremely new features," Brown says. "But if you examine its worth as an operational aircraft, I would say it was a tool of desperation used by the Germans in the later stages of the war and with little honest effect." The Me-163 may have been a desperation move, but it was "a delight to fly," Brown says, "once you had gotten your wits about you. It was so rapid that the initial feeling was that it was a jump ahead of you. It was rather like being in charge of a runaway train -- but exciting, unquestionably. "

These days, the only aircraft Brown pilots are in computer flight simulators, which he tests for eager aircraft aficionados. "The technology is impressive, but doesn't stack up to the real thing," he says. "I'm not an enthusiast about flight simulation. I realize that it is the short road to achieving something deeper than you would by having to produce the actual full-flying training under normal conditions. But, I've never met a simulator yet that is absolutely accurate in reproducing the handling qualities of the airplane it represents. There are shortcomings. " And yet, Brown adds, flight simulators do have a useful purpose. "One must give it this: simulators are very good for practicing safety drills in aircraft, without any danger of losing the aircraft if anything goes wrong. That is a great advantage."

Harder than adjusting to the inadequacies of computer flight simulators has been not flying at all, says Brown, who turned in his pilot's license when he was in his mid-70s. "It is like drug withdrawal, I imagine. You become a nuisance to your wife after you stop flying. You run around rather demented, not sure what to do with yourself. It really does have a rather powerful affect on you, because you had formerly led this high-intensity, active life. But, finally, I've come to terms with it. I've tried to replace it. I do a huge amount of lecturing and I'm an international university lecturer. I travel a lot, I lecture a lot, and that keeps me out of trouble. Most of the time."
 
I have a book by Eric Brown comparing WW2 naval aircraft which makes me wonder about his objectivity. During the book he compares naval aircraft in battle with all types of land based A/C. Without going into too much detail, for instance, he states that a fight between an FW190A-4 and a F6F-3 would be pretty even whereas the FW would have all the advantages against the CorsairII. Hmmmm At the end of the book he picks the best fighter of the war and SURPRISE, he picks the Spitfire 14, I think, over all the Germans, the P51 and the Hellcat and the P47 is not even mentioned. Also have a book by Marion Carl and apparently he and Brown became good friends after the war when Carl was doing some test pilot work.
 
Well, I think it depends on the reader's attitude as to what you're expecting to learn from Brown's reports. If you ask a pilot about his opinion on a certain aircraft, it will always be subjective, as every pilot will have his own opinion. As a reader you have to approach this from a criticial PoV and sample out the unbiased and thus objective information.
Also, Brown sometimes gets out of his field of expertise and makes general comments on an aircraft without realising that the aircraft he flew was perhaps not the standard version. (For instance IIRC he flew the He 219A-0 and not the later A-5.) But his comments on that specific plane will later be accepted as general truths and reproduced in most publications and websites.

Kris
 
As usual good post Kris with much common sense. I located the Brown book finally( it was packed in boxes) and reviewed it. His ranking of naval fighters in descending order is Hellcat, Zeke, Wildcat, Corsair, Sea hurricane, Seafire. ahem, His ranking of dive bombers(not naval necessarily) is : JU87, SBD and Val tied, Skua, Helldiver. Torpedo bomber: Swordfish, Avenger, Kate Jill. ahem, Single seat fighters: Spitfire and FW190, Hellcat, Mustang, Zeke.ahem
 
Did I get that right he rated teh Corsair and Seafire lower than the Zeke?

The Avenger lower than the Swordfish?
Which were his criteria? It does not necessarily mean that he thinks the Zero is the better fighter, but perhaps the best in handling? :|
From the reports I've seen of him, he does stress the flight characteristics over performance data, armament, armour, ...

Kris
 
Not having read the book, i can only go on whats been said in conversation here. You have to remember he's talking about naval aircraft and deck landing them. there were more Seafires lost to landing accidents due to the narrow track undercarriage than to enemy action. It simply wasnt designed for carrier operations but the Fleet Air Arm was desperate for a modern fighter so the Spitfire was converted as a quick response.
The Americans nearly gave up with the Corsair because of the amount of early accidents trying to land an aircraft where the pilot couldnt see over the nose.
 
I have also heard mixed reactions to Brown's statements/opinions. There is no question that the man has flown a variety of aircraft, but this is a subjective field. He will have his own personal bias on things just like anyone else.

That being said there will never be a definitive "Best" anything due to subjectivity.
 
His ranking of naval fighters in descending order is Hellcat, Zeke, Wildcat, Corsair, Sea hurricane, Seafire.

Whilst that list seems odd as an "ultimate" ranking of the fighters, it makes a great deal of sense if the period they entered service is taken into account. For example, the Hellcat was clearly the best carrier fighter in the world when it entered service, the Zeke was clearly the best on it's début, etc.

Along the same lines, you could argue the Spitfire, or 109, or Mustang etc was the best fighter ever, without arguing they are superior to the Eurofighter Typhoon, F-15, F-16 or F-22.
 
The ranking of the A/C by Brown in his book, DUELS IN THE SKY, WW2 Naval Aircraft in Combat, is exactly as I posted. It seems to me that the criteria he used to establish his rankings was designed so that he could indulge his personal bias. Obviously his ranking of the Swordfish above the TBF is the most controversial and he admits he did a lot of thinking before doing it but he says that the facts are the Swordfish was in action well before the Grumman, obtained better torpedo results and suffered fewer losses. One wonders if Brown had been on the airstrip at Midway in June 1942 and had been offered his choice of an Avenger or Swordfish, notwithstanding the results at Taranto, to attack the IJN fleet, which one would he have chosen. Seems like I remember that the Swordfish in the attacks on the German fleet on their dash from Brest to Norway up the Channel could hardly get into position to attack because of their slow speed. Also, in his analysis of Corsair performance I think he only uses a very early model as he reports that it's top speed is only 395 mph. Then he states that the Corsair would have no chance against an FW190A-4 but then goes on to say, in his analysis of combat between a F6F-3 and FW that in 1944 the FW190-A4 was a little long in the tooth and the contest would only be decided by the skill of the individual pilots. Well, in 1944, the Corsair would have been the F4U-1D with much better performance than either the F6F or the FW and I doubt that in the hands of equally skilled pilots a Hellcat would have ever have had any advantage over any model Corsair.
 
renrich said:
the Corsair would have been the F4U-1D with much better performance than either the F6F or the FW and I doubt that in the hands of equally skilled pilots a Hellcat would have ever have had any advantage over any model Corsair.
Concerning this renrich, my Grandpa flew mock combats against the Navy guys in their Hellcats, and never had a problem coming out on top... He flew the Hellcat at the end of the War and liked it, but loved his Corsair...

The Hellcat was designed to counter the Zero/Zeke, not the F4U...
 
I have also heard mixed reactions to Brown's statements/opinions. There is no question that the man has flown a variety of aircraft, but this is a subjective field. He will have his own personal bias on things just like anyone else.

That being said there will never be a definitive "Best" anything due to subjectivity.


I agree and that is why I have allways taken what he says with a grain of salt.
 
I think you have Brown pegged Mr Adler. In fact I have heard that the Hellcat was described as a pussycat whereas the Corsair was a high strung predator. I downloaded the training video of the F4U from Zeno and watching it scared me to death. It was a very early model low cockpit airplane before the elongated tail wheel, sealed over top cowl flaps and before the right wing spoiler. I have a little light plane solo time as well as a ride in an L39 where I got to roll it a couple of times and I can just imagine how it must have felt to go from an SNJ to that 2000 HP beast with the reputation the early models had. The film showing the stall where the left wing just quit flying and the plane was suddenly on it's back did not look anything like a stall in a 172.
 
I think you have Brown pegged Mr Adler. In fact I have heard that the Hellcat was described as a pussycat whereas the Corsair was a high strung predator.

I agree with your definition of the Corsair, but I don't think you can call the Hellcat a pussycat. I understand that it was a delight to fly, but its record says that it had some pretty vicious teeth.
 

Users who are viewing this thread

Back