Posted: May 20th, 2008
The Hunt for Nazi Scientists
Captain Eric Brown

Captain Eric BrownNo 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.”

German Messerschmitt 163During 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.”

Captain Eric BrownThese 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 effect 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.”

  • Gene Mayeda

    I reread the chapter about the Me 163 in Capt. Brown’s 1977 “Wings of the Luftwaffe”. In it he only describes flying the Me163 in unpowered gliding tests.
    In his interview for Secrets of the Dead he says he flew a powered, fully fueled Me 163 (unauthorized test flight). Which is the truth?

  • Rico

    Yesterday Capt. Brown gave a compelling presentation of his work after WW2 at the university of applied sciences in Hamburg. And he told us that he flew a fully fueled Me 163.

  • Gene Mayeda

    Thanks Rico!
    So what was the reason for not mentioning that in his book? Would he have gotten in trouble in 1977?

  • Janet Norman

    I am publicity secretary of our aviation society and we have Captain Brown as this month’s guest speaker. So I have to get clued up on the subject. I can hardly grasp the depth of knowledge this gentleman has acquired over a lifetime of flying. Really loking forward to meeting him. I have spoken to him on the phone – lovely speaking tone.

  • Gene Mayeda

    Hi Janet!
    Capt. Brown, in my opinion, is an awesome story teller. He has lived an amazing life and you are lucky to be able to meet him in person. Several of his books are still in print. Please ask him why he didn’t write about his powered flight in the Me 163 in his book “Wings of the Luftwaffe” (1977). BTW this book is still in print as a paperback edition. It is my favorite of all his books. Thanks.

  • leo motshagen

    The Me 163 was not the flying bomb, that was the V1, but it was a rocketplane.

  • Caroline Sheen

    I am the photo editor at Air and Space magazine and am looking for a good photo of Capt Eric Brown.
    Can anyone help??

  • Caroline Sheen

    If anyone can suggest where I might find a good photo of Capt Brown please email me at

  • Glenn Melrose-Brown

    I am the son of Capt. Eric (Melrose) Brown, as referred to in “Wings on my Sleeve”. At this point I wish to remain anomous, having just found this site. #1 – yes of course I could provide pictures of him. #2 Yes of course he flew a fuelled ME 163, it was from Germany back to the UK and there were several over test flights. If you need to contact me for further details or authentication you have my e-mail address, please not in the public domain. By the way he is still very active. I celebrated his 90th birthday with him in January and have a wonderful picture of us on the London Eye.

  • Ladnek Rogers

    So he flew it from Germany to the Uk and back?
    & i to have no idea about which was true about the Me.

  • Mike Dunne

    I am a Winkle Brown nut. I simply can’t get enough of his Air Test Reports!

    However…I must say that there would have been no chance whatever that he could have flown an Me 163 from German to England

  • Mike Dunne

    er…Germany to England!

  • Mick Dunn

    His Test Reports were great and he has been duly recognised as a great Test Pilot on BOTH sides of the Atlantic…but he did make some very strange comments! The one that gave me the biggest headache was that he believed that the Mustand had TWO pilots (to share the flying load of going on very long fligts in WWII)…I also have a lot of trouble with the claims that were made for the Miles Supersonic Project!…

  • Patti Bagley

    Is Eric Brown still alive?

  • Alastair Archibald

    Eric Brown flew a Me262 jet fighter back to the UK, not the Me163 rocker plane, which only had a powered flight duration of 6-8 minutes.

    And as far as I know Capt. Brown’s name is Eric Melrose Brown, not Eric Melrose-Brown.

    Are you really, honestly his son?

  • Tracy Firth

    The son of Capt. Eric (Melrose) Brown, Glenn Melrose Brown is an old friend & colleague of mine and we lost contact some years ago now. Could you possibly pass on my email address to him with my regards so we can catch up. Or email me his email address.


  • capt jonathan bussell

    yes sir he is still alive 92 years as of jan 2012

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