Review: Eric Brown’s Wings on My Sleeve, the Life of Flying’s Forrest Gump

By Scott Spangler on March 7th, 2022

Like many history-obsessed aviation geeks, I had a passing knowledge of Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown defined by the most common bullet points that most often summarized his life. He was (he passed in 2016 at age 97) a Royal Navy aviator and test pilot who the Guinness Book of World Records says has flown more different aircraft—487—than any other pilot. (He also logged an astounding 2,407 landings on aircraft carriers.) So, when I came across his book, Wings of My Sleeve, during a regular reconnoiters of Half-Price Books, I bought it.

What captivated me was not the vast and diverse list of aircraft he’s flown, but from the people he’s met, flown with, and interrogated. Winkle is, without a doubt, the Forrest Gump of aviation. Born in Edenborough, Scotland, his father fought World War I with the Royal Flying Corps. A Royal High School student, Brown went to the 1936 Olympics with his father, who was invited to aviation events by the World War I pilots who made up the resurgent Luftwaffe. There he met Hanna Reitsch, a world-class glider pilot, and Ernst Udet, a top-scoring ace second only to the Red Baron, who took Brown flying in a Bücker Jungmann and put the two-seat biplane through its aerobatic paces.

In 1937 he entered Edenborough University in an honors course in modern languages, with German as his principal subject. He also joined the University Air Squadron and learned to fly. Visiting Berlin in 1938, he called on Udet, now a major general, who took Brown to see Hanna Reitsch fly the FW-61 helicopter at the International Automobile Exhibition inside the Deutschland Halle in Berlin. That evening, Reitsch some of his Luftwaffe friends celebrated the day at Udet’s apartment.

Recruited by the Foreign Office, he spend his penultimate year, 1939, in an exchange program that placed him for six months in France and another six months in Germany as a student teacher. “One of my favorite outings was to the popular city of Munich, and there I was staying in a small inn that fateful first weekend of September 1939.” That Sunday morning, he awoke to two SS officers at his door who informed Brown that their countries were at war. They knew everything about him, and after three days of interrogation, they abruptly drove him to the Swiss border and returned his MG and said he was free to go.

He drove straight to the recruiting station. With the RAF not yet realizing its need for pilots, Brown signed up with the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy, which was hungry for pilots. Naturally, Brown had to learn how to fly all over again, the Navy way. Trained in fighters, this led him to test flying at Farnborough. And in 1944, he was one of a half dozen pilots who flew the Meteor. The only naval aviator, he was assessing the jet for carrier operations, and spent some time discussing this with Sir Frank Whittle, who designed and built the powerplant.

In March 1945, Brown got a 20-minute demonstration flight in one of the four Sikorsky R-4B helicopters lent to Britain. He and a squadron mate went to pick up two of them days later. When Brown inquired about who was going to teach them to fly this intriguing new machine, the U.S. Army tech sergeant assembling the helos handed him a manual with an orange cover. That’s how he became a rotary-wing test pilot, and in April discussed the results of autorotation air flow patterns through the rotors with Igor Sikorsky, who’d invented the flying machine he was testing.

Reichsmarschall Herman Goring (left) and Udet, head of the technical office of the air ministry, observe aerial maneuvers by the new Luftwaffe on June 16, 1938. (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

With World War II reaching its conclusion, Brown, because of his fluency in German and aviation knowledge, became the commanding officer of the Enemy Aircraft Flight at the Royal Aviation Establishment at Farnborough. Its mission was to find and secure essential aviation aircraft and personnel, including Werner von Braun, Willy Messerschmitt, Dr. Heinkel, Focke-Wulf designer Kurt Tank, Hanna Reitsch, and the Horton brothers (leading glider designers), before the Russians did. His team didn’t get everyone on its list, but shortly after the war ended, Brown interrogated Herman Goering and several other high ranking Luftwaffe officers.

Others he interacted with before and after the war ended included Jimmy Doolittle, Grand Admiral Karl Donitz, Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Phillip, and many other notable names. But I won’t spoil these stories for you because reading this 296-page book is worth the time because Brown’s stories about flying 487 different aircraft are equally absorbing.

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