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Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown & the gateway to supersonic flight

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One of Britain’s most celebrated pilots and a true legend of aviation, Captain Eric Melrose ‘Winkle’ Brown, has died at the age of 97. Capt Eric Brown was the Royal Navy’s most decorated pilot, achieved several ‘firsts’ in naval aviation and held three world records, including flying 487 different types of aircraft – more than anyone else in history.

He also made 2,407 decklandings at sea and 2,721 catapult launches – records which are unlikely to ever be broken – and survived 11 plane crashes. A veteran of World War II, he flew fighter aircraft during the war, witnessed the liberation of Bergen Belsen concentration camp and was one of only two men to survive the sinking of the HMS Audacity in 1941. Throughout his career he contributed immeasurably to the advance of naval aviation and was awarded the MBE, OBE, CBE, DSC, AFC and QCVSA and was an honorary fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

 

eric_brown_in_front_of_a_blackburn_buccaneer
Captain Eric Brown in front of a Blackburn Buccaneer – one of the record 487 different types of aircraft he flew

The son of an ex-Royal Flying Corps pilot, Brown was born in Leith, Scotland and educated at Edinburgh University, where he studied Modern Languages and joined the University Air Squadron. He joined the Royal Navy in 1939 as a Fleet Air Arm pilot. After operating as a fighter pilot in protection of Atlantic convoys, he was assigned to test flying duties in 1942 and, in 1944, was made Chief Naval Test Pilot at RAE Farnborough. Here he commanded the High Speed Flight and prestigious Aerodynamics Flight, playing a key role in the flight testing on an entire generation of aircraft. It was during this time that Capt Eric Brown was confirmed as the test pilot for the Miles M.52 supersonic research aircraft, a top secret project aimed at building the world’s first piloted turbojet-powered aircraft capable of 1000mph.

 

Miles M.52: The gateway to supersonic flight

In December 1943, at the height of World War II, a top secret contract was awarded to a little known aircraft company. The contract was to build the world’s first supersonic jet, capable of 1,000mph, and the company given this monumental task was Miles Aircraft – one of Britain’s smaller aircraft manufacturers, but one with a reputation for innovatory thinking. The engine was to be provided by Frank Whittle’s company, Power Jets. As a safeguard, the project was to be monitored by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough (RAE), which would also provide a test pilot with wide jet flying and transonic flight testing experience.

Miles quickly produced initial designs and started researching the problems associated with breaking the sound barrier. Their only reliable source of data on supersonic objects proved to be the Armament Research Department, who carried out wind tunnel tests on bullets and shells. From this and other aerodynamic data, Miles developed a very thin-winged, bullet-shaped aircraft. Then, in August 1944, all this research was inexplicably passed to the Americans.

By December 1945, the first if the three prototypes was virtually complete and only weeks away from taxiing trials. The second, destined for the high-speed tests and an attempt at the sound barrier was almost 80 per cent complete. In February 1946, Capt Eric Brown was confirmed as the test pilot and October 1946 was set for the high-speed and supersonic trials. 

“Well they always say if you want something to fall into your lap, you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time. It just so happened that I was a young, but fairly experienced, test pilot in the Aerodynamics Flight and the High-Speed Flight at RAE in 1944.” – Captain Eric Brown

But just a few days later, on 12 February 1946, Miles were ordered to stop production – a decision which may well rank as one of the greatest tragedies of British aviation. No plausible explanation has ever been given for this sudden cancellation, when Britain was only months away from breaking the sound barrier and becoming the world’s leading aviation nation. Instead, U.S. Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier for the first time, on 14 October  1947, in the rocket-powered Bell X-1. Had the program gone ahead, the M.52 could have done it at least a year earlier.

Inexplicably denied the chance to become the first man to break the sound barrier, in his own words Brown admitted that the cancellation of M.52 caught everyone by surprise, not least himself and he was overcome by ‘deep disappointment, total frustration, burning anger and heartfelt sympathy for other members of the team.’

Fast forward some 65 years later, and Brown and other members of the M.52 development team, chiefly Dennis Bancroft, the Chief Aerodynamist on the M.52, came together to try and finally solve the mystery of the cancellation. In revealing this little known experimental aircraft program from the early days of the Jet Age, it’s clear that the M.52 had enormous potential and could have changed the course of post-war aviation. However, it seems it was not to be.

In telling the inside story of this most secret of programmes, Brown admitted that there was a hard core of ‘very senior figures in British aviation and politics’ who, from the outset, had genuine concerns about the high risks associated with the venture. However, one of the biggest factors to cast a shadow over the project was the ‘intrusive’ interest of the Americans (supported by the British Government) – all the hallmarks of a conspiracy.

From true aviation legends, Miles M.52: Gateway to Supersonic Flight, by Captain Eric Brown in association with Dennis Bancroft, is the only personal account of the development of the M.52 and the mystery behind its cancellation.

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