National identity: PH Blog

Recent holiday reading came courtesy of a chap called Eric 'Winkle' Brown who, comedy nickname or not, turns out to be a bit of a dude. He saw action in WW2 in the Fleet Air Arm before becoming a full time test pilot specialising in evaluating captured enemy aircraft. And in a flying career that started in biplanes and ended in F4 Phantoms he flew 487 different fixed and rotary wing aircraft types, earning himself a place in the Guinness Book of Records in the process.

Japanese cars and planes share traits, it'd seem
Japanese cars and planes share traits, it'd seem
His unique perspective of testing warplanes of all nationalities during the war years was the bit that really interested me and though his analysis was, by its nature, technical in focus he affords himself a more emotive appraisal of some of the aircraft too.

And where's the PH angle in this? Well, it struck me these more personal views have a lot in common with how we talk about cars. Personally I've always been fascinated how national character traits can be expressed through machines like cars and the way we identify with that and develop our automotive tastes. Seems like Winkle did the same with planes and much of what he had to say sounds familiar.

Take his appraisal of the Mitsubishi Zero Fighter for instance.

"The design philosophy employed by the American trained designer, Jiro Horikoshi, was to keep the Zero's weight to a minimum. In the air the lightweight Zero was remarkably nimble ... I was most surprised by the noise emanating from the fuselage, rather like the sound produced when one pushes the side of a large biscuit tin, caused probably by the 'panting' of the light gauge alloy skin."

Macchi C.205 in Brown's top 20 favourites
Macchi C.205 in Brown's top 20 favourites
So, perhaps, a Honda NSX of the skies. Not as powerful or fast on paper as its Western contemporaries but elegantly engineered and delightful to pilot through its emphasis on lack of weight. If, perhaps, a bit tinny as a result - ref. roadtests of 90s Japanese cars and their plasticky interiors if you want an equivalent.

Running with the theme what about this appraisal of the Italian Macchi C.205, a fighter Brown includes in his top 20 favourites of all the planes he ever flew "judged by the sheer joy of knowing one was flying a real crackerjack."

He writes, "The supreme Italian fighter I flew was the Macchi 205V powered by a [Daimler-Benz] DB605A, which was on a par with the Mustang and Fw190 in that time scale." His conclusion - "A wonderful combination of Italian style and German power" - is another that invites a modern-day automotive comparison.

Typhoon engine failures more than inconvenient
Typhoon engine failures more than inconvenient
Brown also got to fly some of the diesel-powered German aircraft of the era like the Dornier Do18, concluding, "I found them very quiet but dirty and smelly - not by any stretch eco friendly." If you didn't like the cut of his jib already that should settle it!

What of the British planes? Brown described the Spitfire MkXII as his favourite and I'm not sure what automotive equivalent you could draw from that. How about the Hawker Typhoon and late-model TVRs instead though? Brutish looks, massive firepower ... powerful but temperamental engine...


[Sources: Wings On My Sleeve by Captain Eric 'Winkle' Brown, Macchi C.205 photo from Wikipedia Commons]


Comments (18) Join the discussion on the forum

  • andybu 12 Aug 2013

    My pleasure. I could add a few more once you've gone through this list, but as I was already creeping a bit off-topic I stopped there. Send me a direct e-mail if you wish & I'll throw out a few more.



  • Gunslinger1979 08 Aug 2013

    I got a few weeks in Mexico coming up, so that list is really helpful thanks for that!

  • Dan Trent 08 Aug 2013

    andybu said:
    You may need a longer holiday to get through the full set, though.


    Top reading list though, and you're right on the Bulgin book. Inspiring and humbling in equal measure.

    And great to hear from those who've met the man himself too, thanks for sharing!


  • FestivAli 08 Aug 2013

    On a more mundane note, I'll apply his Zero analogy to my 1.6l Mazda 323. I'm pretty sure the thin steel 'pants' and it's noisy, but makes decent enough pace from its 1.6.

    He has / (had?) a fascinating life. I have Wings of The Navy and Wings of The Weird and Wonderful volumes 1 and 2 on my bookshelf and they are all great reads. Stories about testing German aircraft on German fields in what would in a matter of hours become part of the Russian sector, with reluctant recently captured flight crew, being given a tiny paper manual to read minutes before flying a helicopter for the first time, and inflatable rubber carrier deck landings are brilliant.

  • andybu 07 Aug 2013

    Oh Dan, Dan, what a thread you have started here..........

    Holiday reading lists and on the topics of Motoring or Aviation - this one could run for weeks....

    Starting with aviation, then, because you did..

    1) Sigh For A MERLIN. Alex Henshaw. This man flew in the Kings Cup air races of the 1930's in Percival Gull equipment and the like. Very skilled and versatile pilot - come WW2 and he was the test pilot at the Castle Bromwich works and flew almost every Spitfire they built. Wonderful read and some very dry humour (try the memo he wrote re Quality Control issues to the factory Production Manager, after test-flying a new-build Spitfire, inverted, and then experiencing a large spanner appear out of the bottom of the aircraft, whizz past his nose and land with a clang on the (inverted) cockpit plexiglass canopy above his head..)

    2) Vulcan 607, Rowland White. Well known to many PH'ers, I'm sure - but a must-read if you haven't yet. You will read this at one sitting until 2am in the morning...

    3) Beyond the Blue Horizon, Alexander Frater. UK to Australia on dozens of airlines but only via every short-hop flight sector that can still be flown on that route. Recreates the pioneering spirit of 1930's aviation.

    Two more that are slightly left-field..

    4) GO. An Airline Adventure. Barbara Cassani. The story of the LCC (Low-Cost Carrier) which was founded and owned by British Airways. Who eventually lost their nerve and sold it to easyJet. Very good on how to start up a commercial airline from scratch and also on the later politics of how Stelios bought it.

    5) High Risk, (Sir) Adam Thompson. Thompson was the founder of the much-liked British Caledonian airline, a thorn in the side of BA for so long. A must-read for understanding the twists and turns of British Government aviation policy of the period. It reads like a thriller - I promise you won't be bored. Rattling good read & highly recommended.

    Now, Dan, we need some proper petrolhead books too. Wouldn't be a PH'ers holiday trip without some motoring content, surely?

    1) Vic Elford; Reflections on a golden era in Motorsports. Mr Versatile; rallied, rallycrossed, sprints, sports car races, long-distance races, road-races, Can-Am, Trans-Am, F1, works team drives for BMC, Ford, Porsche & Chapparral. You couldn't have a career like his today as the modern professional driver seems to have to become a specialist. Great read.

    2) Alan Clark; Backfire. The late MP was also the ultimate amateur enthusiast. "Backfire" is a collection of the articles he wrote for various enthusiast magazines over the years. Owned some wonderful cars (RR Ghost, 8-Litre WO Bentley, Jaguar SS100, XK120, C-type, D-type, Porsche 550 Spyder & 911, Ferrari 750 Monza, Citroen DS Decapotable, Mercedes 600 and many more. A motoring enthusiast who can write - his description of the vices and virtues of the original Land-Rover Discovery is worth the price of the book on its own.. You may disagree with every word he wrote, but I promise you will be thoroughly entertained..

    3) Jenks; A Passion for Motor Sport. Collection of articles by the late Denis Jenkinson, Continental Correspondent , Motor Sport magazine. When I was a nipper I read one of his pieces and was totally hooked. I wanted his job, it sounded so wonderful. The book contains his classic article on competing in the 1955 Mille Miglia road race around Italy with Stirling Moss in the works Mercedes 300SLR. Again, worth the price of the book for this article alone. the rest are in for free.

    4) BULGIN; The very best of Russell Bulgin, 1958 -2002. A sad choice for summer reading but a wonderful collection of pieces by the late Mr Bulgin. Correspondent for CAR magazine for a number of years. You'll have to haunt e-bay or Amazon to get a copy as the collection was put together in book format after his untimely death, with all proceeds then going to the Royal Marsden Hospital, which cared for him during his illness.

    He was a very original and perceptive writing talent, with an an ability to put cars into their proper context. He could and usually would take a view on any subject that no-one else had seen. I still think his review of the Porsche 911 to be the best summary of that cars' virtues and vices that I have ever read.

    There you go, Dan; my fourpenneth for summer reading. You may need a longer holiday to get through the full set, though.


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