Edit Magazine

The Alumni Flying Corps

Meet test pilot Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, whose heroic feats have helped shape modern aviation. Plus: the alumni building a replica 1916 biplane.

Captain Eric Brown
Captain Eric Brown photographed at RNAS Lossiemouth, 1967

The career of Captain Eric Brown (MA Arts 1947), now in his 97th year, sounds like the trailer for a Hollywood blockbuster.

He is the Royal Navy’s most decorated pilot, having earned the Distinguished Service Cross among other medals, and holds unbroken world records for astonishing aviation feats. During the Second World War, he survived a torpedo attack, helped liberate the Belsen concentration camp, interrogated Hermann Goering, and found time for an impromptu song with the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

Captain Brown — nicknamed “Winkle” by his Navy colleagues because of his small stature — presented the University’s 2015 Mountbatten Lecture, and afterwards spoke to Edit about his early life and studies in Edinburgh, his career highlights and his friendship with Neil Armstrong.

Eric Brown began his studies at Edinburgh in 1937, though the war interrupted his degree, which he completed in 1947.

He received his first formal flying instruction as a member of the University Air Unit, flying from the Turnhouse airfield just west of Edinburgh.

Captain Eric Brown in WWII
In action during the Second World War. Photograph: Imperial War Museum

At the outbreak of the war in 1939, he was studying in Germany as an exchange student from Edinburgh, and found himself interrogated by the SS for three days before being escorted to the Swiss border.

On returning to Edinburgh he joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve as a Fleet Air Arm pilot and served on the aircraft carrier HMS Audacity. In December 1941 he was one of only two men to survive a torpedo attack on the ship.

Having shown exceptional pilot skills with the Audacity, Captain Brown then became a test pilot specialising in aircraft carriers and the techniques and mechanisms for landing on them.

Today he still holds the record for the most carrier landings and the largest number of different aircraft flown by one person – at 2,407 and 487 respectively.

Among a long list of aviation achievements, he made the first carrier landing of a twin-engined aircraft, a Mosquito, in 1944, and the first carrier landing of a jet aircraft, a Sea Vampire, in 1945.

His approach was anything but cavalier, and both the breakthroughs his test flights achieved and the meticulous preparation methods he developed have helped ensure the safety of procedures that have since become commonplace in military operations.

Fluent in German, Captain Brown was called upon at the end of the war to interview several Nazi leaders in preparation for the Nuremberg trials of 1945 and 1946.

Captain Brown’s distinguished Naval career continued until 1970, and he continued to fly until 1994. After crossing paths with Neil Armstrong shortly after his Moon landing, the two men developed a firm friendship, sharing a love of aviation and common roots in the Scottish Borders.

Captain Brown was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University in 2008. We hope you enjoy our short film of Captain Brown in conversation with Ronald Kerr, the University’s Press and Public Relations Manager.

Magnificent alumni and their flying machine

In 2016, if the people of East Lothian hear a buzz overhead and look up, they could be forgiven for thinking they have travelled back exactly 100 years: they may glimpse a strangely new-looking First World War biplane.

A replica of a 1916 Sopwith 1½ Strutter will take to the skies next year, having been lovingly built from scratch by a group of aviation enthusiasts, among them two University of Edinburgh alumni.

Several Sopwith 1½ Strutters flew from the Royal Naval Air Station at East Fortune in the First World War. A two-seater plane, broadly resembling the one-seater Sopwith Camel, its name comes from the novel struts arrangement attaching the top wing to the rest of the aircraft.

The East Fortune site is now home to the National Museum of Flight, and to the Aviation Preservation Society of Scotland (APSS). The replica has been constructed from original plans more than century old, by a dozen members of the APSS, in a process that has so far taken 13 years.

“The determination of these chaps is incredible,” says John Guy (MBChB 1963) of his fellow APSS members, which include fellow alumnus Jim Mattocks (BSc Chemistry 1961).

Every part of the aircraft is a story in its own right. Take the wood of the frame, for example.

“We use ash, Douglas fir and Sitka spruce,” explains Mr Guy. “If Sitka spruce is grown north of the Arctic circle it grows very slowly, with growth rings very close together, which increases its strength enormously. Unfortunately, most of the Baltic forests have been cut down and we have to rely on American and Canadian sources for Sitka spruce now.”

The frame will soon be covered in fabric, and again, nothing is straightforward.

“The original fabric was linen, and condensation was a problem internally – linen used to rot and they needed recovering fairly frequently,” says Mr Guy. “So we’re using a synthetic nylon-like fabric, which of course does not rot.”

Many original components have been sourced from collectors: Mr Guy points to a Zenith altimeter on his desk that was made in 1916. Others have been freshly engineered for the project, with much of that work being done by team members.

A major component that could not be used in its original form is the engine. Working examples of the vintage rotary engine exist, but metal corrosion means they would not be safe, and they were known to have a very short lifespan even when new. A modern 150 horse power radial engine made by Australian manufacturer Rotec is a very close match.

Mr Guy names funding as the biggest challenge the team has faced. He says the APSS took the painful decision to “sell the family silver” in order to complete the replica. In a vibrant collectors’ market, the society has sold off a Brantly helicopter, a De Haviland Chipmunk and two other planes to keep the Sopwith dream alive.

Mr Guy has acted as fundraising secretary for the past year, and in light of some recent progress, the APSS is confident the aircraft is on course for its maiden flight. A crowdfunding drive, private donations and support from East Lothian Council are among recent funding boosts.

“We are very optimistic. It’s definitely going to fly,” Mr Guy says.The first test flight may take place in Bedfordshire, England, where the Shuttleworth Collection flies replica and vintage aircraft, unlike other aviation museums across the UK. And once all testing and certification has taken place, there is no reason the Sopwith could not be flying over East Lothian once more.

With several pilots on the APSS team, and two seats in the 1½ Strutter, Mr Guy and his friends will be among those looking down on the spectators.

Meet John Guy in ‘Medicine then and now’