LONDON (AP) — Eric “Winkle” Brown, a British pilot who flew more kinds of aircraft than anyone in history and was the first person to land a jet on an aircraft carrier, has died. He was 97.
Brown’s family said he died Sunday at a hospital in southern England after a short illness.
Often dubbed Britain’s greatest pilot, Brown holds the world record for the most types of aircraft flown — 487 — and for the most carrier deck landings, at 2,407.
Nicknamed Winkle — short for periwinkle — because of his relatively short 5 foot 7 inch (1.7 meter) height, Edinburgh-born Brown was a soft-spoken man who described himself as “a strange mixture of an academic and a cowboy.” His daring extended beyond the cockpit; in his youth he took a job as a circus Wall of Death rider, doing circuits on a motorcycle with a lion in the sidecar.
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He flew fighter planes with the Fleet Air Arm during World War II, surviving the 1941 torpedoing of the ship he was based on as fighter protection for North Atlantic convoys.
He was present at the April 1945 liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and at war’s end was tasked with flying advanced planes captured from the Germans. The job included flying a rocket-powered Messerschmitt Me 163B-1a Komet — an experience that Brown recalled last year was “like being in charge of a runaway train.”
In December 1945 he landed a de Havilland Sea Vampire on the deck of HMS Ocean, the first jet landing on an aircraft carrier.
Brown had studied German at university and taught in the country in the 1930s, and after the war interrogated senior Nazis including Hermann Goring and Heinrich Himmler.
He was the Royal Navy’s most decorated pilot. First Sea Lord George Zambellas, the head of the navy, said Brown was “the most accomplished test pilot of his generation, and perhaps of all time.”
Tweeting from the International Space Station, British astronaut Tim Peake called the pilot “a true inspiration.”
Brown is survived by his partner, Jean Kelly Brown, and son Glen.