Second World War flying ace and test pilot

Born: January 21, 1919;

Died: February 21, 2016

LEITH-Born war hero Captain Eric "Winkle" Brown, who has died age 97, has been described as one of the world's greatest aviators of all time. A Royal Navy rather than RAF pilot, he holds the Guinness Book world record for the number of different types of aircraft he piloted - a stunning 487, from gliders and helicopters to fighters, bombers and airliners. He also holds the records for the number of take-offs (2,721) and landings (2,407) on aircraft carriers.

It is almost inconceivable that these records could ever be broken. In fact, Captain Brown was also the first ever pilot to land on an aircraft carrier in a twin-engined plane and in a jet aircraft (the latter a De Havilland Sea Vampire) both seen as "highly-dicey" manoeuvres at the time and still nerve-racking for pilots today. He once described it as "essentially aiming for a small lay-by in the middle of a large lake."

Captain Brown got the nickname Winkle partly because of his stature (five feet seven) but also, he said, because he was always trying to winkle out new planes for navy pilots to fly. By the end of the Second World War, attached to the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm, he had flown every major combat aircraft of the war, including Spitfires, Hurricanes, bombers, flying boats and even captured Luftwaffe warplanes.

He also saw combat action at sea and on land. On December 21, 1941, he was on board the Royal Navy's first escort carrier HMS Audacity, a captured German banana freighter converted on the Clyde into a makeshift carrier. He was serving as a pilot of a Grumman Martlet fighter when the vessel was sunk by a Nazi U-Boat in the Atlantic west of Spain.

More than 70 crewmen died and 75 survived, including Brown and only one other member of the air crew. He said his Mae West lifejacket saved his life, keeping him afloat in the towering Atlantic waves when he fell asleep through hypothermia until he was rescued.

Escorting Atlantic convoys between Gibraltar and Britain, Captain Brown had carried out many air sorties from the Audacity, shooting down a number of Luftwaffe fighters and bombers. During his flying career, he also survived no fewer than 11 plane crashes.

Called in as a German-English interpreter on the ground, he was one of the first British officers to witness the horrors of the Nazi Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during its liberation by British troops in April 1945. He saw piles of bodies and thousands of "literally dying zombies, many suffering from Typhus. "It turned me upside down because I had made some very good friends in Germany (before the war). Perhaps I was politically naive in not realising the underlying evil of the Nazi regime."

He was also asked to interrogate German prisoners including SS chief Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe and once considered Hitler's successor, whom he had met on a teenage trip to Berlin. Captain Brown first asked him what the thought of the outcome of the Battle of Britain. "A draw," Göring insisted, saying Hitler had forced the Luftwaffe to focus on the eastern front with Russia. When Göring stuck out his hand to be shaken, Captain Brown declined, instead responding in German with the good luck greeting used among German fighter pilots: Hals und Beinbruch! (Break a neck and leg).

Soon after Belsen, Captain Brown flew to a still Nazi-occupied airbase in Denmark, defended by 2,000 heavily-armed Germans. "I thought we were for it as we landed," said Captain Brown, who was armed only with a pistol. "But the commanding officer came up to me and surrendered on the spot."

Eric Melrose Brown was born on January 21, 1919, in Leith, within sight of both the Water of Leith and the Firth of Forth, instilling in him an early love of the sea. His love of flying came from his father, who had transferred from the Royal Scots Guards to the Royal Flying Corps during the Great War and later with the fledgling RAF. His father took Eric up in a Gloster Gauntlet bi-plane when he was eight and, with no second seat, the schoolboy sat on his dad's lap and got to handle the joystick.

Eric attended the Royal High School in Edinburgh before going on to the University of Edinburgh, where he learned to fly with the University Air Squadron. Studying Modern Languages, he majored in German, which would become a vital asset during the war. A daredevil by nature, he helped pay for his studies by riding a 250cc motorbike on a circus "Wall of Death," sometimes with a tamed lion in his sidecar, according to a longtime friend, the aviation and defence analyst Paul Beaver.

When he was 17, in 1936, Brown's father took him to see the Olympic Games in Berlin, which Hitler hoped would show the world that Germans were the master race but was confounded by the triumphs of the black American athlete Jesse Owens. As an ex-Great War flier, Brown's father was greeted with respect by the rising Nazis, including former Great War fighter aces Göring and Ernst Udet. With his father's permission, young Eric was taken up from an airfield in Halle by Udet in a two-seater Bücker Jungmann bi-plane trainer. The Scottish teenager did not show his (later-admitted) fear when Udet did a full flip 50 feet from the ground, leading the German to tell him, with a slap on the back, "you have the temperament of a fighter pilot."

In 1939, Eric Brown was back in Germany as an exchange student/teacher from the University of Edinburgh at the Salem Castle School in southern Germany. On the morning of September 3, he answered a loud banging on his door to find two German SS men who told him: "our countries are at war. You will come with us."

After three days of interrogation, during which he feared the worst, he realised that the Germans were not aware that he had earlier joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve. Still fearing "I would get a bullet in the back," he was escorted to the Swiss border, where, to his surprise, they let him keep his beloved MG TA Midget open-top sports car. "We don't have any spares for it," they told him. With the wind in his hair, he raced through Switzerland and France to the Channel and on to England.

He hoped to sign up for the RAF but could not get a place so instead turned to the Royal Navy and its Fleet Air Arm, which was only too happy to take on a pilot with many hours of flight time. In 1942, he married Evelyn (Lynn) McCrory, whom he had met during a posting to Belfast. A fine singer, she once sang during the war with the great Glenn Miller and his orchestra.

Retiring from the Navy after more than 30 years in 1970, ending as commander of the Royal Naval Air Station at Lossiemouth, Captain Brown kept flying as a test pilot and for fun until 1994, when he was 73. Quitting flying, he said, was "probably the equivalent of a drugs withdrawal." As Director-General of the British Helicopter Advisory Board, he was a driving force behind the breakthrough use of helicopters by the police, rescuers and ambulance services which have since prevented thousands of crimes and thousands of deaths.

In 2014, Captain Brown was the honorary guest on the 3,000th edition of Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, when the presenter, Kirsty Young, said: "when you read through his life story, it makes James Bond seem like a bit of a slacker." Among the discs he chose were Amazing Grace by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and Rod Stewart's Sailing.

Captain Brown recalled receiving the Air Force Cross at Buckingham Palace in 1950, having previously received three other awards -- DSC, MBE and OBE. King George V1 greeted him with "Oh, it's you again!" The Queen later made him CBE.

Having lived his latter life in West Sussex, Captain Brown passed away in hospital in Redhill, Surrey, just south of Greater London. His wife Lynn died in 1998 and he is survived by their son Glenn, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and his late-in-life partner Jean (née Kelly). Tributes poured in from as far away as outer space, where British astronaut Tim Peake hailed Captain Brown as "to my mind the greatest test pilot who has ever lived."