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

  • j_s14a 07 Aug 2013

    The Hawker Typhoon would blatantly be a TVR, and the Tempest would be a Sagaris.

  • 72twink 07 Aug 2013

    Any of his books are a fascinating read and highly recommended!

  • 0836whimper 07 Aug 2013

    Very badly want to read that book now.

    I always liked the skunk works FW190's and the nitrous oxide powered Ta-152

  • Gunslinger1979 07 Aug 2013

    Ahh brilliant stuff Dan! I ordered that book three days ago for my upcoming holiday read, glad to hear it is up to snuff. Amazing bloke, saw him give a lecture once and within 5 mins grown men had turned into wide-eyed children listening to a bedtime story.
    Also highly recommend 'Empire of the Skies James' Hamilton-Paterson

  • snowen250 07 Aug 2013

    Eric 'winkle' brown is a hero. In every sense of the word. And a nice man by all accounts. All of his books can be very much recommended.

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