on 2 February 2008
If you have the slightest interest in aviation since the 1930's this book will leave you open mouthed in awe at the incredible experiences of the author. No-one would have the audacity to write this as fiction for fear of it being branded "too far fetched!". If being taken for a flight by Ernst Udet before WW2 and watching Hanna Reitsch fly one of the first helicopters inside the Olympic stadium isn't enough, the author goes on to fly every major UK, US, German, Italian, Russian and Japanese aircraft of world war two before being at the very forefront of the jet age and conquering of the "Sound Barrier"....and all whilst being in our Navy! Written from his personal diaries, the style is humble and events put down to good fortune when I am sure they are really due to his skill.
The book can be frustratingly thin on subjects that deserve a book of their own (how many other allied pilots flew a Me163 rocket plane under power I wonder...) and it flits back and forth in time a little confusingly but these are minor quibbles. The book is heavy due to the high quality paper needed to support the small print size to cram it all in and if more detail were given it would extend to several volumes.
Just read it and revel as iconic aircraft and characters of the 40's ad 50's are met and summarized before moving onto the next encounter.
In a time when the term "hero" has become confused with "celebrity", here folks, is the real thing...
on 2 October 2006
No test pilot in history has flown so many types of aircraft as Commander Brown and certainly no other test pilot writes as clearly and interestingly as he does. "Wings on my Sleeve" was first published in 1961 in a much shorter form. In this new edition he answers so many questions that come to mind when reading his other books - notably "Wings of the Navy" and "Wings of the Luftwaffe" - and sets these books into a much wider context of his amazing life
This is the story of his life from his first flight, with the legendary German WW1 ace and later stunt pilot and finally Director of Air Armaments in Goering's Luftwaffe, Ernst Udet, through his experiences in Nazi Germany and his encounter with the SS when they came to tell him that the two counties were at war and on through a life that included convoy escort duties and hair-raising encounters with FW Kuriers before his outstanding deck landing skills led to his being appointed to RAE Farnborough.
He then chronicles the hectic life of a war time test pilot as he flew practically every type of British and US military aircraft and evaluated captured enemy machines to develop combat tactics.
Because of his fluent German, the last days of the war found him despatched to Germany to assemble and test German aircraft. Here he accepted the surrender of a major Luftwaffe base when he landed in the mistaken assumption that it had already been captured by the allies. During this time he met and talked to Goering and Hanna Reitsch as well as every major German aircraft figure of the era.
Post war the pace did not diminish: taking delivery of the first US helicopter to be allocated to the UK, he asked about training to fly it and was handed a thick book with the words, "Here's your instructor!" High speed flights investigating the approach to Mach One were interspersed with development on the Avro Tudor and Bristol Brabazon as well as a huge range of varyingly successful (and otherwise) experimental and new military and civil aircraft.
Commander Brown's close involvement in the development of so many British and US aircraft, allied with his own evaluative and literary skills make this a book to be cherished and re-read time and again: in fact, just like his previous books!
My only complaint is that, like all good things, it leaves one wanting more of the same.
PS: Commander Brown has written far too few books! One I would love for him to write would be "Wings of the Post War Navy". Any chance, please?
on 10 January 2009
The cover intrigued me. It has a painting of a fighter plane, with RAF camouflage and RAF roundels, but it isn't a Spitfire. It's a German Messerschmit 109. At first I thought that the artist had made a mistake, but in fact the book is about a British pilot for the Fleet Air Arm who went on to test fly almost every aircraft that flew and fought in the Second World War, including oddities such as the Me-163 rocket interceptor and some early helicopters. After the war he flies a number of interesting British prototype aircraft, most of which seem to have been scrapped before coming to full production. There is a thread that runs throughout the book in which he investigates the practicality of rubber-decked aircraft carriers, with the aircraft sliding to a stop on the deck. It must have intrigued Brown and although they made it work, it seems a really odd idea.
There's a second thread whereby he and his test pilot chums explore the limits of the Spitfire, taking it up to great heights and then diving down at great speeds in order to find out how to recover from locked-up controls. This must have taken nerves of steel. Landing on a carrier must have taken nerves of steel. I can conclude that Eric Brown had nerves of steel. There is a third thread in which Brown lands increasingly unlikely aircraft on a carrier, including a de Havilland Mosquito. I have only flown aircraft on a computer, and so I cannot begin to understand how hard it must have been to land a Mosquito on an aircraft carrier; very hard, I imagine. I picture Eric Brown as a man who does not need to show off with a flashy watch or a flashy car, or a flashy mobile phone, because he was the first man to land a Mosquito on an aircraft carrier. Burly.
It's an easy read. It starts off as a war memoir, detailing Brown's service in the North Atlantic on board HMS Audacity, an early escort carrier. He flew Grumman F4 Wildcats, or "Martlets" as the RN called them. The Audacity had been converted from a passenger liner, and there was no hangar, and so all the aircraft were parked on the deck and maintained in the midst of fierce storms. On the other hand, the cabins were luxurious. Brown learns how to land and take off from a carrier, and once in service he shoots down a brace of FW-200 Condor maritime patrol aircraft (he calls them "Kuriers", I assume a wartime nickname). Eventually HMS Audacity is torpedoed and sinks. Brown is rescued and spends the rest of his career as a test pilot and general odd-job man - he spend a lot of time during the immediate aftermath of the war in Germany, investigating the Luftwaffe's most advanced and secret aircraft projects. He had a unique combination of skills; in addition to being a crack pilot, he also spoke fluent German, and before the war he had visited Germany and met several famous aviators. Perhaps because he had spent so much time in the air, away from the death and destruction on the ground, he could debrief senior Luftwaffe officers without feeling the urge to throttle them.
The second half of the book is a series of accounts of the various different aircraft he flies or would have flown, if they had not been cancelled. Some of the planes must have had promise - the Miles M.52 would surely have beaten the Americans through the sound barrier, if funding had been available - whereas others were problematic, such as the Avro Tudor, which seemed to avoid all attempts to make it fly correctly. Brown was very lucky to have been born at a time when there was a British aviation industry that could produce more than a handful of designs.
The book is fascinating if you are interested in odd aircraft, although he often doesn't go into much detail about the actual flying. The account of his go in an Me-163 (I cannot recall if he has one or two flights; I believe he flew the aircraft with its rocket motor functioning, and later under tow) has a lot of information about the official wrangling required in order to find one, assemble German groundcrew, fuel it and so forth, but he says very little about what it was like to fly. Presumably he only had time to go up and cruise for a few seconds, and then land again. Some of the aircraft are brushed aside in a sentence, such as the sleek Italian Macchi 202 and the Russian LA-7. The Messerschmitt 109 on the cover of the book doesn't appear anywhere in the narrative, which is odd given that it was such a fundamental type.
It's not really a people book. Brown comes across as a modest, self-effacing man with immensely hidden depths of immense steeliness, a kind of Dan Dare that has passed from the earth. There is nothing much about his personal life, his hopes and dreams, and he is not given to moping. He meets German pilot and raving Nazi Hanna Reitsch before the war, and also right at the end, when she is being investigated for being a Nazi; they communicate intermittently after the war, but he hears nothing from her until receiving a letter just before her death in the late 1970s. There is an implication that she committed suicide with a cyanide capsule given to her by Hitler, and people still argue about this on the internet. That is about the only people part of the book. Brown also interviewed Hermann Goering, briefly. The meeting was cordial, but Goering seems to have had nothing interesting to say. Perhaps he was talked-out.
Eric Brown was born in 1919, and as I write these words he is still alive. The last of a rare type.
This is the bio of one of Britain's most celebrated aviators, the test pilot Eric "Winkle" Brown. Here is a man who started flying before the second world war on biplane trainers and ended his career in the seat of such aircraft as the F4 Phantom and Blackburn Buccaneer. In between, he must have flown pretty much everything capable of leaving the ground (and apparently a few types that never should have left the drawing board): helicopters, multi-engined bombers, fast jet fighters, gliders, embryonic airliners and high performance experimental types. As Fleet Air Arm pilot he flew from carriers (one of which was sunk from under him) in defence of the Atlantic convoys and bagged a fair few enemy aircraft (and subs) for himself. As a test pilot his job required him to fly a vast assortment of captured German warplanes, and to research new flying techniques such as landing aircraft without undercarriage on rubber runways.
All of this is written about here with clarity and precision - a fascinating documentation of a remarkable career and a must read for any aviation enthusiast. I can only imagine that Winkle was one of the last of a dying breed - most of the stuff that he had to do would undoubtedly be done on a computer these days and probably never make its way past the heaalth & safety review board to a real flying trial!
One criticism is that the book becomes a little repetetive - and many aircraft that the reader encounters are simply mentioned 'in passing' and in the briefest of detail so that it becomes a little like I would imagine a train spotter's note book to read... "flew the Hawker Havilland Wonderjet today. 33 minutes flight. Handling good, performance startling." etc etc. Perhaps that's unavoidable given the sheer number of aircraft he flew (the appendices include a list of types; close-typed in small font with no details other than the make and model, this runs to four pages).
Nevertheless, it's an absorbing account of the career of a test pilot that other chief test pilots looked up to.
Certainly one for the propeller heads, but a truly unique and fascinating life story. Captain Brown was a consummate pilot, seeing service in the Royal Navy towards the end of WW2, he flew a colossal number of aircraft types setting a record that can never be broken whilst cheating death countless times, and setting many 'firsts' along the way. This book could have been twenty times thicker, but he simply breezes past stories that would have constituted a whole book for some people, though it is clear that writing is not his strength or interest.
on 12 February 2012
Eric "Winkle" Brown started his aviation career flying Martlets from an escort carrier and went on to become one of the worlds greatest test pilots, flying more types than any other pilot in history. This is a truly superb autobiography, mainly concerning naval aviation, for a refreshing change. The author writes with an enthusiastic joy for his subject, which pours from the pages and keeps you gripped, even when the boss is eyeing you suspiciously. The books is so full of interesting stuff it's impossible to know where to start, so I won't.
"Wings on My Sleeve" is obviously a little dated now, but that is part of its charm. To be able to look back when the author is looking forward puts the reader into the superior position of knowing what works and what doesn't. There is no doubt though that Eric Brown was not only a very talented pilot, but also a very intelligent and likeable man with a talent for writing.
Unlike some books I've read which are a little disjointed, this book comes over as one single piece of writing carefully sown together from a thousand little stories that come seamlessly together. The book starts and ends in Germany and there is a nice little postscript to bring things to a finale.
Eric "Winkle" Brown led the kind of life anyone would dream of living. He survived a career that took the lives of many distinguished and equally skilful pilots and he did what he loved all his life. Now he's given us the privilege of sharing a part of it with us.
Having been the proud owner of 'Wings of the Luftwaffe' since 1978, I was rather pleased to come across this autobiography of the author to flesh out the rest of his extraordinary career.
Although he had written about his work on HMS Audacity in his review of the Fw 200, it was interesting to see how he determined the best way to down such a 'plane (frontal attack, if you are interested). Prior to reading this book I had somehow formed the opinion that the author had simply been a test pilot, so it was good to read of him serving our country in battle and winning, despite having his carrier torpedoed from under him.
It was also interesting to read of how the author segued from combat flying to testing planes. Which brings me to my single bone of contention.
The author explicitly stated in 'Wings of the Luftwaffe' that he only flew the Me 163B as an unpowered glider, being towed by a Spitfire to height, before being cast off. In this book, there is great detail about how a working Komet was made ready and there were a number of *powered* launches. Given that this was all being done for the aid of the British Government, it would be logical for there to be records retained of these powered flights at the PRO in Kew.
The book is a very good read, especially if you want to move beyond the history of the machines into a person who actually flew them. But in writing it, the author has left his readership with a conundrum by contradicting what he wrote 30 years ago.
So what is it? Did Eric Brown fly the Komet from powered take-off to glide landing or not? Enquiring minds want to know.