Seventy years since his test flight in it, Captain Eric 'Winkle' Brown meets the dangerous German rocket interceptor, the Me 163 Komet, once again at the National Museum of Flight, East Fortune
By his own admission, when Captain Eric 'Winkle' Brown climbed into the cockpit of the experimental Messerschmitt Me 163B-1a Komet, he wondered if he was going to survive his test flight in the German rocket-powered fighter aircraft.
© Neil Hanna
Brown flew the notoriously volatile German plane on June 10 1945 after capturing it at Husum, Schleswig Holstein, at the end of the war. Under instructions from Winston Churchill – who wanted to learn as much as possible about Germany’s technological weapons – the Royal Navy test pilot was part of a mission to travel to Germany, test rocket aircraft and bring them back to Britain.
Introduced in late 1944, the Komet was a short-range rocket interceptor with a phenomenal rate of climb and speed. With only a few minutes flight duration at full power and packed with highly flammable rocket fuel, it was a highly dangerous plane to fly; fatal accidents were common.
Luckily Brown survived his flight and went on to forge an audacious flying career piloting over 487 different types of aircraft. And this week he was reunited with one of the most dangerous of them at the National Museum of Flight in East Fortune.
The 96-year-old visited the Museum as part of a £3.6 million redevelopment of two nationally significant Second World War hangars, which will incorporate interactive digital displays showing archive footage and interviews exploring the history, technology and personal stories behind each aircraft.
Confessing to being “pleased to see the Komet again”, 70 years after he flew it, Captain Brown remembered how he 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”.
© WM (CH 15664)
“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,” he added.
“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. I had been used to the top fighters in the game with rates of climb of about 3,000 feet per minute, but this thing climbed at 16,000 feet per minute.
“The angle of climb was about 45 degrees and I couldn’t see the horizon. It was an incredibly volatile aircraft, and its operational record – just 16 kills and 10 aircraft lost in combat – made it, in my opinion, a tool of desperation.”
Despite its volatility the Komet was the fastest aircraft of the Second World War. Pilots who flew it wore special rubber suits to protect themselves in the event of leakages of the rocket fuel, which was so corrosive that it would dissolve human flesh on contact. Despite all the risks it proved to be ineffective in combat.
An interview recalling Captain Brown's experiences will be displayed on an interactive digital touch-screen alongside the aircraft when the redeveloped hangars open in spring 2016. The hangars will dramatically present military, commercial and leisure flight and will, for the first time, explore in detail the human stories linked to individual aircraft.
© Neil Hanna
Born in Leith and now living in Sussex, Captain Brown is the Navy’s most decorated pilot, and has flown more aircraft than anyone else in history.
He has completed 2,407 aircraft carrier landings in an extraordinary career that included the interrogation of Hermann Göring.
His World War Two service included spells on aircraft carriers and several stints with Fighter Command before devoting his time to aircraft trials and testing.
He was also one of the first British servicemen to arrive at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, interrogating the camp commandant and his assistant Josef Kramer and Irma Grese.
The subject of a 2014 BBC2 documentary, Britain’s Greatest Pilot: The Extraordinary Story of Captain Winkle Brown, today’s pilots are able to fly far more safely thanks to the techniques and technologies he helped to test.
Steve McLean, General Manager at the National Museum of Flight described how the human stories behind some of the aircraft is "an important element" of the redevelopment at the National Museum of Flight.
© Neil Hanna
“We were delighted to welcome Captain Eric Brown to the Museum to record the extraordinary story of his test flight in our Komet,” he said, “and look forward to sharing that story with our visitors when the redevelopment opens in the spring.”
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