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.