The former chief test pilot at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, England, holds the world’s record for most types of aircraft flown—a whopping 487—and the record for most carrier landings: 2,407. Captain Eric Brown spoke with Air & Space associate editor Rebecca Maksel on January 26, 2009.
Air & Space: The number of different aircraft that you’ve flown is simply astonishing. In your book you write “The speed with which I had to switch from one type of machine to another…forced me to invent a special system of memorizing the layouts of various cockpits, engine settings, and other vital data.” Can you tell us a little about the system you used?
Brown: It rather evolved from the fact that I flew a large number of German aircraft at the end of the war, because they had a standardized system. All the instruments in the cockpit had color codes around the perimeter of the gauge—for example, red for emergency, brown for oil, blue for oxygen. Once you had this standardized system, it made life very simple for you to identify any instrument. So, bearing this in mind, I tended to daub with pencil around the gauges of non-German aircraft these same color codes. And this helped enormously.
Now, another thing the [Germans] had was for setting rpm, revolutions per minute. You didn’t have to bother about watching an rpm gauge like we do. The gauges had the same configuration as a clock, and provided you set the hands of the clock to 12 o’clock, they had been preset for the particular engine you were dealing with. You didn’t have to remember 2,400 rpm for this engine, 3,200 rpm for that other engine. It was simply: Go to 12 o’clock. So that helped enormously also. We didn’t have that system, but I would pencil right on the gauge the rpm that were required. So you didn’t have to memorize it. You put it on before you flew the aircraft.
Now you can do a tremendous amount if you just devote about 10 minutes to a quarter of an hour before you fly an aircraft to preparation. This is the vital thing if you go into flying a new type of aircraft...particularly knowing the emergencies. There is an attitude amongst pilots that emergencies are a rare occurrence. Well, hopefully that is true. But that’s not to say the emergency won’t happen on your first flight. And unless you’re prepared for that, you’re going to fiddle around. Now, I always carried with me a knee pad on which were written only the emergencies. The rest were dealt with by the color-coding etcetera in the cockpit. But I had the emergencies. And they were written so that if an emergency occurred, I didn’t have to scratch around thinking, “Oh, what do you do here?” I had it exactly in front of me.
Air & Space: Did you ever have to eject from an aircraft?
Brown: No, I’ve bailed out, but never ejected.
Air & Space: Can you tell us about the time you bailed out?
Brown: Yes. In the summer of 1944, from June to September, roughly, [there was] a German weapon called the V-1. This was a flying bomb, but pilotless, and it came over, normally, at 1,000 or 2,000 feet. And launched from catapult pads in Germany. Once it got started, the engine, which was a type of pulse jet engine, kept the aircraft at a steady 400 miles an hour. So this was a problem. We had to combat a pilotless aircraft, carrying a bomb at 400 miles per hour, at low level. We didn’t have a single fighter aircraft in Britain at this time—either American or British—that could do 400 miles an hour at low level. It could do it at high level, but not at low level. So the panic was on. And the only way we decided that this could be done would be to turn from 100-octane fuel to...150 octane...fuel. And with this...fuel you could boost the engine above its permitted regulated maximum. But only for three minutes. And after that, it had to be checked thoroughly on the ground before the next flight. But that three minutes, provided you had a height advantage, you could dive and use full power and catch the V-1.
Now the other difficult thing was, you couldn’t shoot this bomb down normally, because if you did, the bomb would explode and probably take you with it. So what we devised was that we would fly alongside it in formation and get our wing under the wing of the V-1. You wouldn’t touch the wing, you would [place your wing] just underneath, maybe about six inches to a foot, and form a pressure pad between the two wings. And then you gently lifted your wing—not violently, but gently—up and you would roll the V-1. And when it went over about 15 degrees you would topple the gyros that were conducting its flight, and it would immediately lose control and dive into the ground. Now you had to be careful, of course, not to do this over a built up area, because the bomb was going to explode when it hit the ground.