Guess How Many Airplanes Eric Brown Has Flown

The Guinness World Record holder has 487 different aircraft types on his life list.

Eric Brown at the Berkshire Aviation Museum. (Homepage photo: His 1969 Royal Navy Portrait) (Courtesy Simon Blacker)
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Well, I was doing this with a very nice fighter, the Hawker Tempest. And as I said, you were only allowed to do this for three minutes at a time. But we were under so much pressure that we were told to do four runs—all three minutes—one after the other, with a little gap in between of five minutes. I was on my fourth run when the engine seized completely and caught fire, and I had to get out. There was no problem getting out of the aircraft, but it had a rather funny ending. Instead of landing nicely on terra firma, I landed in a duck pond. And a rather slimy duck pond. When I gathered my parachute and waded, as the Navy would say, to the nearest shore, I couldn’t get out because there was a very irate bull in the field beside the duck pond. It kept me there for a good half hour until the emergency services arrived. They found the farmer, and he came down and led this bull away very gently. And do you know, I think that bull was having me on. Not only me, but all the emergency services which were standing by, frightened to come over by the edge and help me out!

Air & Space: At Farnborough you flew many different type of aircraft. Do any in particular stand out?

Brown: My flying was [in] a mishmash of piston engines, high-performance piston engines, the early jets, and the early helicopters. So you had quite a variation. It was unusual—not only was I the chief naval test pilot there and the head of high-speed flight, I was also the chief helicopter pilot. So I did dart around quite a lot. This was an era in which there were some very wonderful airplanes. If you ask me which ones stand out in my mind, well, of course the most beautiful airplane about this time was a twin-engine one called the de Havilland Hornet, which was a scaled-down model of the Mosquito, but with far more power. So it was a tremendous airplane. And you could do almost anything with it on one engine, far [more] with two. That was my favorite piston-engine airplane.

Of course, we had wonderful American airplanes, we had your Mustang, and we had the early helicopters, of the kind Igor Sikorsky flew in the very early days. In fact, Mr. Sikorsky came over and did a flight with me. He was a most amusing man. Before we made the flight, he had been told by a very pompous civil servant that he thought Mr. Sikorsky should remove his hat, because he was always seen to fly in America with his hat on. And this civil servant said, “Mr. Sikorsky, there’s always a grave danger that your hat will fly into the rotors.” And Igor said, “Young man, I know everything about rotor flow, and don’t worry about that,” and he pulled his hat firmly down. So when he came to fly with me, I had the rotors running, waiting for him, and instead of walking straight towards me in the cockpit, he walked in a “W” zigzag way. When he got in, I said to him, “Mr. Sikorsky, why did you walk in that peculiar pattern?” And he said, “Son, there’s a guy out there who has just told me I knew nothing about rotor flow, and now he’ll think I’m a genius.” He was a delightful old man, he really was.

Of course, we were testing all the German aircraft, and there were some wonderful German airplanes at that time, like the Messerschmitt 262, which was a quantum jump in performance. The top fighter in the Allied camp at that time was the Spitfire Mark 14. I’m talking purely about performance. It had a top speed of 446 miles an hour. The Me 262, when I tested it at Farnborough, had a top speed of 568 miles an hour. In those circumstances you can control any type of combat. If you are in an airplane like this, you don’t dogfight, you just come in, make a slashing run, firing with your very heavy cannon, and get out. And that is what they did. Of course it doesn’t work too well against fighters, but it works magnificently against bombers, which is what they were intended to shoot down.

Air & Space: You write in your book, Wings On My Sleeve, that you took the Panther, Banshee 3 and Skyknight through their flight handling and performance tests.  I’d like to hear your opinion of the early jets.

Brown: The early jets had a fundamental problem. There were two ways you could go [with engine development]. You could either have the principle of centrifugal flow or axial flow. A centrifugal flow was the more simple and more reliable method. And that is the method that Frank Whittle chose to go in Britain—purely, as he said, for simplicity and reliability. The Germans went with axial flow, which is a more complex engine, but has many advantages. Nowadays it's the only kind of jet engine that is used, so they were on the right route. But here was the big difference: By going centrifugal, Frank Whittle had engines [that had to be overhauled after] 100 hours of flight. With the German axial flow, [it was] 25 hours. So you can see the advantages. The advantages disappeared once we were able to get the metals to withstand the tremendous heat stresses. And this was the crux of the whole problem. The other thing about early jets, they were very slow in acceleration and deceleration. And that had to be improved. But that was rapidly improved. The heat stress problem took a longer time.

Air & Space: You were sent to Liverpool to collect a new Sikorsky R-4B helicopter. You hadn’t seen a helicopter at that time.

Brown: That’s correct. I had seen pictures of Mr. Sikorsky sitting with his hat on in the VS-300, I think it was. And when I realized that I hadn’t got an instructor, I realized that it was up to me to read the handbook. I thought, well, Mr. Sikorsky did it, and he’s older than I am, why can’t I do it? What I hadn’t realized, of course, was that when Mr. Sikorsky did it first, he was in a tethered aircraft. And here was I in a free aircraft. And believe you me, I used every inch of that airfield, because the major problem one has in starting to fly helicopters is learning to hover. You don’t realize, if you’ve been used to flying airplanes, that the controlled movements you make must be minimized quite radically in flying a helicopter. You need very tiny, controlled movements.

There were two of us sent up to collect these [R-4B helicopters], and we were reading the handbook the night before we were going to venture into the air. And the other fellow was looking rather gloomy as he looked at this. And he suddenly turned to me and said, “Do you know, this is like reading your own obituary.” I tell you, it felt a bit that way the next day, too.

Air & Space: After reading that story in your book, I was amazed to learn that you went on to work in civil helicopter operations.

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