An interview with Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown on the first jet landing on an aircraft carrier

An interview with Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown on the first jet landing on an aircraft carrier

Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown is credited with over 2,400 carrier landings (no one else has come close) as well as being the holder of numerous ‘firsts’. He made the first landings on an aircraft carrier of a twin-engine aircraft, an aircraft with a tricycle under carriage, a jet aircraft, and a rotary-winged aircraft.

The de Havilland Mosquito was the first twin-engine aircraft to land on deck, and was the heaviest aircraft at the time chosen to be flown from a British carrier. Brown landed one for the first time on HMS Indefatigable, on 25 March 1944. Watch Eric describe his first landing of a Mosquito on a carrier.

Footage from Eric Brown – A Pilot’s story

His record of flying 487 different types of aircraft, both fixed and rotary wing, including many Axis aircraft after WWII will never be broken. Many of the flights were as a test pilot, when the aircraft designs were still in the experimental stage and potentially dangerous.

Eric passed away in February 2016 at the age of 97, but his legend lives on.

The following article was written for an aviation magazine in 2015, by Nicholas Jones, Eric Brown’s film biographer. Nicholas has kindly allowed VTST to reproduce the article, which capture’s Eric’s recall of the day he landed a first turbojet on a carrier in December 1945.

Maybe it’s the film-maker in me but when I sit down over lunch with Eric Brown to recall that momentous day, I cannot help but say “it makes you the ‘father’ of Top Gun”. Eric smiles discreetly – he likes the film – but we both know it’s true. That day of course was December 3 1945, when he made aviation history as the first pilot to land a jet aircraft on an aircraft carrier, HMS Ocean. In doing so, he took naval warfare in a new direction, by marrying the reach of a carrier with the power of a turbojet. Imagine Vietnam without Phantoms racing off the deck of one.

I have got to know Captain Brown well from filming him for my feature-length documentary Eric Brown – A Pilot’s Story. Making such a film, you are struck by the way post-war British aviation exuded confidence. Certainly Eric personified this optimism. When the idea of landing a jet on a deck was first raised at Farnborough in 1944, his first thought was “Yes! We must beat the Americans”.

But in those days, however much it might surprise today’s politicians, we were indeed ahead of the USA in aviation, especially in supersonic work.

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Eric Brown c.1941 & Captain Eric Brown in later life

Seven decades after the event, I find Eric in an expansive mood as we enjoy our lunch. “Nick, there are two untold things about that landing on Ocean”, he tells me. Today, he wishes to reveal them to me. I will say what they are later in this article.

Eric had himself been inducted into the new world of reaction propulsion in April 1944 when Wing Commander Willie Wilson, Head of Aero Flight at Farnborough, told him “We’ve got to get you into the jet-set”. Eric had by chance played a small part in the first British turbo-jet flight in 1941 after bad weather diverted him to Cranwell the day before Frank Whittle’s engine and Gloster’s E28/39 first flew. Now, three years later, he was an acting Lieutenant Commander RNVR and one of the select band flying that pioneer aircraft at the RAE in his role as Chief Naval Test Pilot.

This work brought him into regular contact with Whittle, who often visited the Hampshire aerodrome – although various ruses were always adopted to ensure the great inventor was prevented from actually flying the Gloster E28.

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The first Gloster E.2839 (W4041) prototype at Farnborough c.1941 
by Devon SA, Royal Air Force official photographer

Eric thinks it was Morien Morgan, the ‘Father of Concorde’ but then Head of Aero Flight at Farnborough, who one day in mid-1944 said to him “You know, you should be thinking of getting one of these onto carriers”. Eric leapt at the idea: his own enthusiasm would be crucial to making it happen. He asked Morgan “Well, can I have a look over the stables to see what we’ve got?”.

At the time, there were only four choices. First was the E28/39. Two had been made but only one now remained. As it was really an engine test-bed it was quickly ruled out. What about the second choice, the Bell Airacomet? Eric found it sluggish and it was of course American, so that was rejected. The E28’s exciting big brother, the Gloster Meteor, was the third option. Yet it was twin-engined and, in practice, too big for the job. That left the de Havilland Spider Crab.

We know it as the Vampire. Eric found it “a very docile aircraft, easy to fly and with very benign handling”. It chose itself as the pioneer turbo-jet aircraft for the dangerous job of landing one on a deck. It would be so very difficult because of the characteristics of the centrifugal-flow compressor that swept air into its gas turbine engine.

At this time, Eric was also preparing to fly an unusually advanced form of jet plane – the 1,000 mph Miles M52, with its Whittle 2/700 engine attached to an afterburner to take it through the sound barrier (again, hopefully before the Americans). By later 1944, as Eric considered how best to land a Vampire on a carrier, Farnborough had learned that our transatlantic friends were also planning to be first to land a jet plane on a carrier, using Lockheed’s forthcoming P80 Shooting Star in the expert hands of Marion Carl and Bob Elder. Yet the Americans faced precisely the same problem as we did, due to the centrifugal compressor.

“Deck landing”, Eric says, “all depends on lift control”, given that the boat does not lie flat and still like a runway. “On a piston engine, throttle movement provides it”. Should you need lift, just open the throttle and as the airscrew revs up, the pilot gets lift from the propeller’s wash. If he needs drag, to reduce speed, he simply throttles back to achieve it. Landing the Vampire would require a whole new technique.

The problem facing anyone hoping to land a turbo-jet aircraft on a carrier was that none of them could then remotely offer throttle reaction like that of a piston engine. When first flying jets, Eric had been surprised to find they had such slow acceleration due to their centrifugal compressors, taking fifteen seconds to go from zero idle to full power before the brakes were released. Yet if he needed more lift when landing the Vampire on the carrier, Eric realised he would need to increase its speed – and that option just wouldn’t be there in an emergency. That’s what made deck-landing the Vampire potentially so dangerous. The answer would lie in faster axial-flow engines but these were some years off. Eric calculated the Vampire’s landing speed would be between 90-100 mph, with 90 probably its slowest flying speed.

Today, looking back, Eric says he could not have been more prepared for the first landing. He had been practising unconsciously since his days back in 1941 on HMS Audacity, whose deck pitched terribly in the stormy Atlantic. By now, he had done more deck-landings than any other pilot. At Farnborough he practiced landing the Vampire but there were no special tests created for deck-landing.

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The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Ocean on passage between Korea and Japan. 
c.1952-1953 – by the Royal Navy official photographer

The day chosen was 3 December 1945. He took off from RAF Ford, now the fabled prison, and headed out to find HMS Ocean off the Isle of Wight. Its captain was Caspar John, whom Eric knew well from his days test-landing on HMS Pretoria Castle.

It’s time for the first of Eric’s two surprise revelations about the Ocean event: it was virtually cancelled, because the weather was so poor. “It was a knife-edge decision”. As soon as he was in the air, he was told by the Ocean to return to Ford and await better weather. Yet test pilots had latitude. Eric told Captain John he hadn’t the fuel to return, due to his needing the Vampire’s weight to be as low as possible for the critical first landing. He then arrived over the carrier. Its decks were hastily cleared.

Eric had wanted ideal conditions. Instead, he found a rough sea with the ship’s stern moving through an arc of 24 feet and a bad roll of 4 degrees. The Ocean had ten arrester wires: he wanted a perfect landing and aimed to catch number four. “Landing on deck is a bit like Russian Roulette”, Eric says, due to the pilot being at the mercy of the sea. This prompts his second revelation. “I landed too soon. You try to catch an upswing. I didn’t quite get the upswing at the right moment. This meant I landed more aft than I intended”. And so Eric in fact landed on the first wire (and the back end of the Vampire touched the deck).

I closely studied the archive clip of this landing in my latest film Eric Brown – A Pilot’s story. To my surprise, it does indeed show the first wire stretching into a long vee as the Vampire stops.

Having landed, the next step was to be the first pilot to take off from a carrier in a jet aircraft. Eric recalls what a pleasure it was. “Easier in every sense to take off, due to the clear view ahead offered by a propeller-less aeroplane and the absence of torque in a jet”. The Sea Vampire took off “like a scalded cat!”. The bosses on board for the event liked the first landing. They demanded more. A further three followed and this time Eric hit the fourth wire.

Jubilant newspapers reported Eric’s achievement, largely rewriting the same press release. In those days, they avidly lapped up British aviation firsts. Rightly praising the pilot, some even printed where Eric and his wife Lynn lived, something which seems rather unlikely today. One reported that “Winkle Brown had proved that the jet plane, the fastest fighter in the world, can be easily handled on an aircraft-carrier”.

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Eric and Lynne Brown with new Rover 1964
Images from Eric Brown’s private collection

Yet despite the trials’ success, Eric now reveals that they certainly did not prove that. Instead, it was clear that very few pilots could land a centrifugal jet on a boat because there was, for now, no solution to the problem of lift control. When I ask Eric how he could succeed where most would fail, he puts it down to the huge experience he had by then accumulated of deck landing (and of turbojets). His tests that day were of little value. His triumph on the Ocean did not lead to a naval jet entering service: “at this stage, the breakage rate would be too high”. However, he adds that “we knew the answer was beckoning on the horizon, for Rolls-Royce was moving into axial-flow engines with their greater acceleration”.

Eric fondly recalls that it would take the Americans another nine months to land a jet on a carrier. Why, I ask him? “Purely because of the shortcoming of the engine. We can guess they were being more cautious”.

And what is the legacy of the Ocean landing? “The only thing we can say is, we took the bull by the horns, accepting the limitations in engine performance, to show jet propulsion was conceivable for naval operations”.

When I ask how many jet aircraft Eric would land on a carrier, he says “25 at least”. But how would he remember that momentous occasion when he landed the first of them? “I was well aware I was making history”.


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