A pilot, Brown was born in Scotland, and his life story sounds like a series of action novels. He took his first flight, sitting on his former Royal Navy pilot father’s knee, when he was around 8 years old. In 1936, his father took him to the Berlin Olympics, where Brown met and befriended Ernst Udet, a German World War I fighter ace. Udet took Brown flying, said he had aptitude as a fighter pilot, and urged him to take lessons. He did, and in 1939 he returned to Germany at Udet’s invitation; by then, Udet was a Luftwaffe Major General, and Brown saw many of Germany’s aircraft …before being arrested by the SS because during the trip, Germany and the U.K. had gone to war. Amazingly, Brown was escorted to the Swiss border and allowed to leave. He became a pilot with the Royal Navy, with the 802 Squadron. His escort carrier, HMS Audacity, was sunk by a torpedo, and Brown was one of only two pilots in his squadron to survive. He had shown great aptitude for carrier deck landings, and was tapped to train other pilots. Brown still holds the world record for the most carrier landings, with 2,407. He was the first pilot ever to land a twin-engine aircraft on a carrier, the first to land a plane with a tricycle landing gear on a carrier, and the first to land a jet on a carrier. Brown still holds the world record for the most distinct types of aircraft flown by a single pilot at 487 — though the number is actually significantly higher: the Spitfire and Seafire, for instance, only counts as one, even though he flew 14 different variations of that aircraft. He advised United States Army Air Forces General Jimmy Doolittle to adopt the P-51 Mustang as the country’s fighter escort, because he knew that was the only American plane that could outrun German planes.
Brown preferred not to bail out of troubled aircraft, and survived 11 crashes, mostly hard landings on carrier decks, as well as ditching aircraft at sea — once while British Prime Minister Winston Churchill watched. Brown was decorated so often that King George VI once said, “Not you again!” It was Brown’s fourth royal honor, and at that point he was only 28 years old. In 1970, Brown was designated as a Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. He was the most decorated pilot in the history of Britain’s naval aviation service, the Fleet Air Arm. Toward the end of the war, Brown flew to a Nazi base in Denmark to inspect and fly a German jet bomber. He had been told the Luftwaffe had fled the base, but when he landed he discovered it was still operational. Capt. Brown, alone and armed with only a pistol, accepted the surrender of the base’s commander — and 2,000 German soldiers, holding them for Allied forces who arrived the next day. Brown later was sent to the newly liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and, because he spoke fluent German, was tapped to interrogate the camp’s commandant, Josef Kramer, and his assistant, Irma Grese. “Two more loathsome creatures it is hard to imagine,” Brown said later; they were later tried and hanged for war crimes. He was also tapped to interrogate German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring, and German aircraft designers Willy Messerschmitt and Ernst Heinkel.
After the war, Brown went on to become the Royal Navy’s chief test pilot, flying captured Italian, Japanese, and German planes to learn about their innovations. He also did an exchange stint at the United States Naval Test Pilot School in Maryland, where he not only flew dozens of American aircraft, but introduced the U.S. Navy to a British innovation: the steam aircraft carrier catapult, which worked so well that he did it while the carrier was still docked. After 31 years of service, Brown retired in 1970. His last flight as pilot was in 1994, but he continued to lecture on aeronautics into 2015. He died February 21, at 97.