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Heroic test pilot Eric Brown reunited with rocket-powered Komet

Published 11/09/2015

Captain Eric Brown with the rocket-powered Komet he flew to Britain from Germany at the end of the Second World War (Neil Hanna/National Museum of Flight/PA Wire)
Captain Eric Brown with the rocket-powered Komet he flew to Britain from Germany at the end of the Second World War (Neil Hanna/National Museum of Flight/PA Wire)

The man dubbed Britain's greatest pilot has been reunited with the infamous rocket-powered enemy aircraft he flew 70 years ago.

Captain Eric Brown, 96, piloted the Messerschmitt Me 163B-1a Komet on June 10, 1945 after capturing it at Husum, Schleswig Holstein, Germany, at the end of the Second World War.

Under instructions from prime minister Sir Winston Churchill - who wanted to learn as much as possible about Germany's technological weapons - Capt Brown was part of a mission tasked with travelling to the country, testing rocket aircraft and bringing them back to Britain.

Reaching speeds of up to 600mph, the Komet was the only rocket-powered fighter aircraft ever to have been operational and was the fastest aircraft of the Second World War, but the explosive rocket fuels powering the motor made it highly dangerous to fly.

Capt Brown was reunited with the aircraft on a visit to the National Museum of Flight at East Fortune, East Lothian, today.

The former Royal Navy test pilot 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.

"I had been used to the top fighters in the game with rates of climb of about 3,000ft per minute, but this thing climbed at 16,000ft 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."

Pilots who flew the Komet wore special rubber suits to protect themselves in the event that the fuel leaked as it was so corrosive that it would dissolve human flesh on contact.

Following its capture at Husum, the Komet went to the College of Aeronautics at Cranfield in 1947. It was later refurbished and eventually donated to the National Museum of Flight by Cranfield University.

Born in Leith, Edinburgh, and now living in Sussex, Capt Brown is the Navy's most decorated pilot and has flown 487 types of aircraft - more than anyone else in history, the museum said.

He has completed 2,407 aircraft carrier landings and has led an extraordinary life. He interrogated Hermann Goring and was one of the first British servicemen to arrive at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

He was 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.

A £3.6 million redevelopment of two Second World War hangars is being carried out at the museum.

An interview with Capt Brown will be displayed on an interactive digital touch-screen alongside the aircraft when the redeveloped hangars open in spring 2016.

The hangars will present military, commercial and leisure flight and will, for the first time, explore in detail the human stories linked to individual aircraft.

Steve McLean, general manager at the National Museum of Flight, said: "An important element of the redevelopment at the National Museum of Flight is the opportunity to tell the human stories behind some of our aircraft using interactive digital displays.

"We were delighted to welcome Captain Eric Brown to the museum to record the extraordinary story of his test flight in our Komet, and look forward to sharing that story with our visitors when the redevelopment opens in the spring."

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