A new ‘warts and all’ biography of Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, Royal Navy combat pilot during WWII and, later, test pilot
21 June 2023
You know that saying, “There are bold pilots and there are old pilots, but never old, bold pilots”. Well, it’s wrong. Eric Brown – nicknamed ‘Winkle’ during his Fleet Air Arm days – was an extremely bold pilot, reckless even, often in the line of duty but also sometimes just because he could. And yet he survived crashes and other incidents to carry on to the ripe old age of 97, thoroughly living up to the accolade of Britain’s Greatest Pilot.
Some might say ‘The World’s Greatest Pilot’ but Paul Beaver, author of a new biography of Eric Brown called simply ‘Winkle’, said his publisher, Penguin Michael Joseph, vetoed that for the book’s cover because it might upset the Americans. Maybe, maybe not.
Winkle, The Extraordinary Life of Britain’s Greatest Pilot, published on 8 June 2023 in hardback, is an incredible story with much detail and many stories not previously revealed. Paul Beaver is not only a well known historian and a former Colonel in the Army Air Corps, but he knew Eric Brown for nearly 40 years. “Always called him Eric, by the way, never Winkle,” Paul told us in conversation on a FLYER Livestream.
Eric had helped Paul with one of his earlier books about Spitfires, and they had become friends. Upon Eric’s death in 2016, Paul received all Eric’s archives – more than 20 chests of documents, flight records, photos and memorabilia. In this ‘treasure trove’ were some incidents that shocked Paul – including one about Eric’s very start in life which he had kept secret, even from his wife and son.
As Paul said to us, he wanted this book to be about the man, rather than the aircraft, and it’s an extraordinary tale of a talented but complicated man who served his country in many ways.
Before becoming one of Britain’s elite test pilots, Eric had a very full WWII combat career which included being shot up and making a forced landing with multiple injuries and also survived the sinking of his ship, HMS Audacity.
Eric is famous for being the pilot with the most carrier landings – 2,407 in fact – and he learnt that skill on heaving, short improvised decks in the Battle of the Atlantic. He also was the first to land a twin-engine aircraft on a carrier, and the first jet.
The book is big, more than 500 pages, with a wonderful collection of photos through the years. It’s one of those must-read books, compelling and full of incidents that leave you gasping with surprise. There’s an early incident where a young Eric rides his 500cc Norton motorcycle in a wall of death ring… with a live lion riding pillion. That gives a hint of the recklessness which lurked in Eric.
However, that recklessness was coupled with supreme skill in an aeroplane – any type, including helicopters – and an analytical mind. A big plus was that he didn’t panic. He was also methodical and meticulous in his record-keeping of the more than 480 aircraft types he flew during his career.
The book is revealing about one of our greatest heroes, detailing some of Eric’s finest moments – and there were many. But it also doesn’t shy away from exposing Winkle Brown’s ego as a driver of some of his more headstrong moments – ‘major blacks’ in his own words. Flying inverted as part of a formation escorting Prime Minister Winston Churchill… I mean, only Winkle would do that just because he could.