Britain’s greatest test pilot, aviation record holder and former RAeS President Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown gives his tribute to astronaut Neil Armstrong ‘a kindred spririt’, who passed away earlier this year.
An article from the December edition of Aerospace Professional.
On 24 June 1971 I was briefed to conduct MADGE (Microwave Aircraft Digital Guidance Equipment) trials at RAE Bedford in a Wessex 2 helicopter and, since this would necessitate having sole use of the main runway for a whole hour, it was arranged that this be done over lunch time when only one aircraft, a Handley Page HP115, would require to land.
As it happened I finished my flight work just as the 115 came in to land, and a Land Rover came to pick up the pilots from the two aircraft. The other pilot was American, introduced himself as Neil Armstrong and immediately said: “I know you already from my US Navy days.” I, of course, knew his name and was embarrassed that I had not recognised the most famous person on the planet.
We were taken to the Officers Mess for a late lunch and this provided a wonderful opportunity for intimate conversation as the mess was virtually deserted at two o’clock in the afternoon. We talked about our just completed flights, our days in our respective navies and the rocket-propelled Me163B and North American X-15. A change in the conversation came when I remarked that the name Armstrong was widespread in the Scottish Borders, my home territory. Neil said that his forebears stemmed from the little town of Langholm, while I told how mine came originally from Melrose, some 30 miles separating these two small Border towns. At this point he turned to me and said: “Test pilots, naval aviators, rocket pilots, border reivers — for sure we’re kindred spirits.”
This extraordinary man went on to thank me for not quizzing him about the lunar landing but said very vehemently: “None of us (astronauts) went up there and came back the same person.”
After these golden moments I saw little of Neil for the next ten years until, in 1984, I was elected an Honorary Fellow of the American-based Society of Experimental Test Pilots and thereafter we were invited to lecture at some of their functions. We were both of academic bent, Neil much more so than I was, but we dovetailed pretty well together. As the years went on these events became fewer and we were reduced to Christmas card exchanges until into the 21st century, when, in October 2006, we were reunited at the London Guildhall to receive Awards of Honour from the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators. Then, in 2008, we both received honorary doctorates from Edinburgh University.
My last meeting with Neil was in March 2010, when we shared a private evening meal together in Mayfair, with Jim Lovell of Apollo 13 fame, Eugene Cernan, last man on the Moon; Bob Gilliland who was Lockheed’s Principal Test Pilot on the Mach 3 SR-71 Blackbird aircraft and Andy Green, the supersonic car driver. An unforgettable evening with icons of speed and space and a most fitting occasion for a last memory of a very great man and a dear friend.
Captain Eric M Brown, CBE, DSC, AFC, HonFRAeS, RN
Eric Brown is a former Royal Navy officer and test pilot who has flown more types of aircraft than anyone else. He is the Fleet Air Arm’s most decorated pilot and holds the world record for aircraft carrier landings. He was RAeS President 1982-1983.