Tributes have been paid to naval flier Captain Eric Brown, dubbed Britain’s greatest pilot, following his death aged 97.
Capt Brown was the Royal Navy’s most decorated pilot and had flown 487 types of aircraft in his lifetime.
In a colourful career spanning 31 years he witnessed the horrors of a concentration camp liberated by the British, accomplished a series of notable firsts in the world of aviation, and held three Guinness World Records.
Capt Brown died on Sunday at East Surrey Hospital following a short illness, his family said in a statement.
The veteran, who was born in Leith, Edinburgh and later moved to Sussex, was the first Naval pilot to land a jet on an aircraft carrier, and held the record for the most carrier deck landings at 2,407.
Capt Brown, who was known as Winkle, cheated death on a number of occasions, surviving being sunk by a U-boat in 1941, and later being shot at and injured by a German long-range bomber.
At the end of the Second World War he saw the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and later used his fluency in German to question some of the most prominent Nazis including Hermann Goring and Heinrich Himmler.
Speaking last year during a visit by the Queen to the camp in northern Germany Capt Brown recalled the scene in 1945 as “a field of corpses”, to which he said the monarch replied: “It must have been horrific really.’’
In September the former Royal Navy test pilot spoke of his delight at being reunited with the rocket-powered enemy aircraft he flew 70 years ago.
Capt Brown piloted the Messerschmitt Me 163B-1a Komet on June 10 1945 after capturing it at Husum, Schleswig Holstein, Germany, at the war’s end.
On a visit to the National Museum of Flight in East Lothian six months ago he recalled the thrill of the flight decades before.
He said: “I was pleased to have the opportunity to see the Komet again, 70 years after I flew it. I was very determined to fly this rocket aircraft back in 1945 because to me it was the most exciting thing on the horizon, a totally new experience.
“I remember watching the ground crew very carefully before take-off, wondering if they thought they were waving goodbye to me forever or whether they thought this thing was going to return.
“The noise it made was absolutely thunderous, and it was like being in charge of a runaway train; everything changed so rapidly and I really had to have my wits about me.”
His death is a huge loss, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas said, as he paid tribute to a man he described as one of the Royal Navy’s finest.
He said: “The Fleet Air Arm may have lost one of its finest and best known pilots, but British aviation has lost something even greater - the most accomplished test pilot of his generation and perhaps of all time, and a huge advocate of military aviation.”
British astronaut Tim Peake tweeted a tribute from space writing: “So sad to hear that Capt Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown has died - to my mind the greatest test pilot who has ever lived. A true inspiration.”
Paul Beaver, who was a friend of Capt Brown’s for almost 40 years, described him as a modest man despite his numerous accomplishments.
“For a man who had achieved so much in one lifetime, he was modest and self-effacing yet always ready to help,” he said.
Capt Brown is survived by his partner Jean Kelly Brown and son Glen.
In a statement they said: “It is with deep regret that the passing of Captain Eric Melrose Brown CBE DSC AFC is announced.
“Eric was the most decorated pilot of the Fleet Air Arm in which service he was universally known as ‘Winkle’ on account of his diminutive stature. He also held three absolute Guinness World Records, including for the number of aircraft carrier deck landings and types of aeroplane flown.”