NARRATIVE & IMAGES BY LEWIS GAYLARD (CONTRIBUTED)
Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown memorial day at RNAS Yeovilton
Captain Eric Melrose “Winkle” Brown, CBE, DSC, AFC, Hon FRAeS, RN was a British Royal Navy pilot who had a career spanning that marked some still unbroken world records – these include flying a total of 487 different types of aircraft, undertaking the most aircraft carrier take offs and landings(2,721 & 2,407 respectively), and was the most decorated officer in the history of the Royal Navy.
The nickname “Winkle” was derived from the word “periwinkle” which is a small mollusc, and given to him by some of his Royal Navy colleagues – Eric’s height of 5’7″ was the reason for this!
One of his first flights was in fact in 1936 in a twin seat Bucker Jungmann aircraft flown by the legendary WWI German ace, Ernst Udet, who helped convince Eric that flying was surely his destiny based upon his temperament in the air. Eric went on to actively fly in WWII, and by 1944 had also been awarded an MBE for his services to outstanding enterprise and skill in piloting aircraft during hazardous trials. Between 1944 and 1950 he went on to fly as the chief naval test pilot at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, commanding officer Enemy Aircraft Flight, and commanding officer Aerodynamics Flight. In the years that followed he worked with the US Navy, became chief executive of the British Helicopter Advisory Board, received the King’s Commendation for valuable service in the air and the Air Force Cross, was president of the Royal Aeronautical Society, honorary fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, a Master Pilot of Russia, and was inducted into the US Navy’s carrier test pilot hall of honour.
Eric was also a popular and in demand speaker/author/lecturer up to the age of 90 and beyond – testament to his endearing popularity and interest.
The Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton was the setting in July 2016 to remember a true legend of aviation. The announcement of the passing of Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown CBE, DSC, AFC, Hon FRAeS, RN back in February 2016 was a shock to all those who had known him through his distinguished and swashbuckling life.
Being championed by the former First Sea Lord Sir George Zambellas and renowned historian and broadcaster Paul Beaver, the planning for a once in a lifetime memorial event quickly developed, and took months to organise. The planned event would pay tribute to the feats and achievements of ‘Winkle’ and would include a rare gathering of aircraft types, most of which he had flown!
RNAS Yeovilton was a hive of activity with preparations finally finished the evening before the main day. The 21st July saw many distinguished guests descend upon the south Somerset airfield to honour the life and times of an iconic naval aviator. Guest of honour, and a former Fleet Air Arm pilot himsel,f was His Royal Highness the Duke of York, who spoke very warmly about ‘Winkle’.
As mentioned the gathering of aircraft was sublime and included various types taken from the world famous Fleet Air Arm Museum, which is also situated at Yeovilton. It would have made ‘Winkle’ smile to see such an eclectic gathering of aircraft types, and as Robert Hardman of the Daily Mail said “It was not so much a flying display, as a roll call of aviation history! . . . Vampire, Martlet, Mustang, Mig, Hurricane, Lancaster, Sea Vixen, . . .”
The flying display commenced after lunch and despite the weather not being totally on-side, all the aircrew gave faultless performances. The appearance of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster Bomber was a real throwback to the dark days of World War II. ‘Winkle’ had test-flown the Lancaster at Farnborough and was one of two pilot to successfully ‘roll’ the aircraft!
The ‘home team’ of the Royal Navy Historic Flight displayed their World War II ‘icon’ in the form of the Fairey Swordfish MK.1, W5856, which is the oldest surviving of its type in the world.
Operating from ‘Yankee’ dispersal on the north side of the airfield (next to the FAA Museum) was the Fly Navy Heritage Trust’s De Havilland Sea Vixen FAW.2, XP924, which was in good company alongside the Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron’s Mig-15UTI & De Havilland Vampire FB.52. All the three fast-jets would operate from there for their display slots.
Following a spirited display from the Mig-15, XP924 flew in formation alongside the Vampire before breaking away to perform its own display sequence. The routine was adjusted slightly for this occasion but again, Cdr Simon Hargreaves OBE RNR flew a flawless display.
There were many highlights during the day which I’m sure ‘Winkle’ would have enjoyed immensely, and this included a unique formation fly-past of a pair of AgustaWestland Wildcat HMA2 (from 815 Naval Air Squadron) alongside a Grumman F4F Wildcat donated by The Fighter Collection.
With the flying display commentary being given by ‘Winkles’ biographer and friend, Paul Beaver, the display was unfortuntately over far too quickly. Fittingly it was the Royal Navy who gave the final ‘send-off’ to ‘Winkle’. A formation of four BAE Hawk T1 from 736 NAS performed an emotional ‘missing man’ fly-past, with a single Hawk pulling up into the ever darkening clouds. What better way of saying good bye to the ‘worlds greatest test pilot’? We will not see his like again….
A full list of aircraft in the flying and static display is as follows:
Aérospatiale Alouette 2
BAE Systems Typhoon
British Aerospace Hawk
De Havilland Sea Vixen
De Havilland Tiger Moth
De Havilland Vampire
Hawker Sea Hurricane
North American Mustang
North American Texan
Westland Sea King
Westland Merlin Mk 3 Photo chase
British Aerospace Sea Harrier
British Aircraft Corporation Strikemaster
Beechcraft Super King Air
de Havilland Beaver
de Havilland Chipmunk
de Havilland Gypsy Moth
de Havilland Vampire
Hawker Sea Fury
Hawker Sea Hawk
McDonnell Douglas Phantom
Schelbe Rotax Falke
Scottish Aviation Bulldog