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"Expect The Unexpected" - Eric "Winkle" Brown on Helicopter Safety

12/10/2015 13:51:00

The World famous test pilot, Eric “Winkle” Brown, proved he’s still got his finger on the pulse when it comes to air safety.

Speaking at the Safety Workshop at HeliTech International 2015, the 96 year old former Royal Navy pilot who was present at the tragic Shoreham Airshow  Crash earlier this year, said: “It is the fourth Hunter accident I’ve witnessed.”

“What will we learn? Maybe some very hard lessons, the CAA will have to take a very close look at the way we display aircraft in the future.

“Only football seems to be more popular with the public than flying displays.”

Brown said: “It’s all about situational awareness.”

HeliTech International Safety Workshop 2015

This was the main theme of his key-note address and his experience provides some unequalled insight into air safety today:

Captain Eric Melrose ‘Winkle’ Brown CBE, DSC, AFC, KCVSA, PhD Hon FRAeS, RN has flown more than 487 different aircraft types, currently more than anyone else in history. It is a record that is never likely to be broken.

He was a Royal Naval test pilot and achieved several firsts in naval aviation, including the first landing on an aircraft carrier of a twin-engined aircraft, an aircraft with a tricycle undercarriage and a jet propelled aircraft.

Speaking to a capacity crowd at the Workshop, he reflected on times when situational awareness had played an important role.

Safety Workshop, HeliTech International 2015

He spoke about how in 1938 the German First World War Air-Ace, Ernst Udet, had taken him as a special treat to the Deutschlandhalle in Berlin, to witness a flying demonstration by Hanna Reitsch in the Focke Wulf FW61 – the first helicopter.

This was in front of a crowd of 5,000 invited guests in an enclosed hall and although everything had gone well at rehearsal when the hall was empty, on the night, the helicopter could barely rise off the ground.

No one understood why, until it was suggested that there was “no air”! The huge doors leading to the arena were opened and the aircraft flew to near roof height before landing safely. The aircraft had a normally aspirated engine that was being starved of fresh air by the mass breathing of the audience.

The situation had changed from an empty hall during rehearsal to a fully crowded one and it was only by recognising this change in the conditions that a solution could be found.

Brown also recollected how rapturous applause that met Hanna Reitsch before the demonstration, turned into a more muted response to the successful flight as guests struggled to repair the damage the downdraught had caused to their appearance and hair-dos! Another aspect of the situation that hadn’t been anticipated.

In 1944, Brown was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (his first honour) for outstanding enterprise and skill in piloting aircraft during hazardous aircraft trials.

However, there were still moments that gave him pause: He recalled being sent to RAF Speke in 1945 to collect a Sikorsky R-4B Hoverfly/Gadfly.

The US helicopter was very different to earlier German designs. When Brown asked where the helicopter instructor was, the Master Sergeant in charge of assembling the aircraft, handed him the flight manual [reportedly with the retort: “Whaddya mean, bud? – Here’s your instructor”.] Brown then had to read it from cover to cover. He said: “It was like reading your own obituary.”

Another one of Brown’s memories impressed upon him the mantra: “Expect the unexpected.”

He was flying with Igor Sikorsky on the VS300. Sikorsky, who coined the phrase, had travelled to the UK with the express purpose of finding out what Brown had discovered in his pioneering work with The Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough into the Vortex Ring State (the helicopter’s version of a stall): Sikorsky still wearing his trademark Homberg hat despite the protestations of the Farnborough civil servants.

In summing up, Brown turned to what he had learned during his own test flying career saying: “Be smart. My approach to flight safety had to be different. Clearly as a test pilot you must fly close or beyond the safety envelope to test the aircraft.”

“As far the flying public are concerned, we have got to give people confidence when we fly them. We have got to work at this all the time.”

And he ended his address by noting that most accidents happen not at take-off or landing but en-route and he echoed Sikorsky’s words: “Expect the unexpected.”

Photo credit: Mark Wagner, Aviation Images.

For more information, see: HeliTech International's report on the Safety Workshop and their interview with Eric Brown.

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