Brian Monteith: Death-defying pilot '˜Winkle' Brown deserves a statue
The festive period is always an exhausting time: shopping for presents, cooking up a storm in the kitchen, travelling to see friends and relatives (a daunting challenge with all the security and congestion), testing the contents of green, amber and brown bottles, partying hard '“ and not having enough time to sleep it all off before the next day starts again, usually before seven.
My busy but life-affirming routine is probably no different from what most folks enjoy, but with a birthday early in the new year, I rarely catch my breath until mid-January when I retire to watch the box sets or read the books that I received as gifts.
Box sets are just the thing for long winter nights when the rain is lashing down outside and even the cat doesn’t want put out without a Mae West, not least because you can share them snuggled up with your partner.
For a more solitary experience, a good book cannot be bettered, and I love nothing more than books that tell the story of interesting people.
I was delightfully surprised to receive the new biography of Mikhail Gorbachev, but it is big and will require some concentration, so to start off I turned to the one book I asked Father Christmas for – Wings On My Sleeve by Edinburgh’s own Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown CBE DFC AFC. As a kid I spent much of my spare time building model aircraft kits, reading books on military aircraft borrowed from Porty library and visiting the occasional Turnhouse air show (thanks to Evening News cartoonist Harry Gilzean who would take his son Ian and I).
I never aspired to be a pilot or even join the RAF or Fleet Air Arm, but I was keen to design aircraft, until the reality dawned that my maths was nowhere near good enough.
It was only three years ago, while watching a BBC2 TV documentary, Britain’s Greatest Pilot, that I suddenly remembered that I had read Winkle Brown’s articles in Air Enthusiast as a teenager. I naturally sought out more of his story and marvelled at his achievements, scrapes – and modesty.
The credit for so much of history goes to the big names, the leaders, generals and admirals. But just as it is interesting to read about the role of Charles de Gaulle in reinventing France, or Mao Tse Tung’s murderous rise to even more murderous power, so too is it necessary to learn of what seemingly ordinary people did that was extraordinary – and often turned events.
Like the must-read autobiography of Alistair Urquhart – The Forgotten Highlander – who survived the fall of Singapore, the Burma Railway, the hold of a ‘Hell Ship’, being torpedoed by the Allies, a Japanese labour camp and being in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb went off – Eric Brown’s life was crowded with events that together would seem unlikely if a novelist dreamt them up.
Taken by his father to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he met a German fighter ace, decided to study German at the University of Edinburgh and join its Air Cadets where he learned to fly.
His escapes from near death and willingness to fly aircraft to destruction deserved more than the DFC and AFC. Not only was he an aviation pioneer, creating countless never-to-be-beaten world records and providing advice that shaped aircraft design – he won dogfights in the skies, visited Belsen and interrogated Nazi war criminals.
He had the advantages of being shorter than most test pilots (he believed it saved his life on many occasions), speaking German (which meant he was often first choice to test captured aircraft) and serving in the Royal Naval Fleet Air Arm (thus becoming the go-to specialist for carrier-based flight).
Last year, the university’s Air Squadron announced it would try to erect a statue to commemorate Winkle Brown’s life. Even with a couple of chapters left to read, I say “chocks away” to that idea.