'˜Winkle' was one of our air force's highest fliers

At the start of the week, the death was announced of the famous test pilot Eric '˜Winkle' Brown, and with his passing at the age of 97, one of the last links to the fliers of the First World War was broken.

Sunday, 28th February 2016, 07:08 am
Updated Thursday, 25th February 2016, 08:35 am

Although he was born a year after the end of the war, his life’s work was to be influenced by those early pioneering fighting aviators.

His test career would stretch from the late 1930s to the 1980s, flying an astonishing 487 different types of aircraft, a world record unlikely to be matched, and piloting 2,407 aircraft carrier landings, including the first ever by a jet aircraft.

His story has been outlined in many obituaries, and among them are details of an intriguing meeting with German First World War flying ace Ernst Udet in the 1930s.

Eric’s father had been a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, the forerunner of the Royal Air Force.

At the Berlin Olympics in 1936, through his father’s connections, he met Udet, who took the young Eric flying, sparking a lifelong interest.

He also met Adolf Hitler’s test pilot Hanna Reitsch at this time.

Brown would later test-fly the rocket-propelled jets developed by the Nazis at the end of the war, a dangerous undertaking to say the least.

By the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the jet age, war in the air had come a long way.

At the start of the Great War in August 1914, flying machines were treated with some scepticism by the military authorities as to their usefulness in combat.

Initially, the sole role of the aeroplane in the First World War was reconnaissance, checking on troop movements and dispositions along the front line.

Soon, though, they were attacking observation balloons and raking the enemy’s trenches with fire.

Combat in the air followed quickly afterwards.

Our aircraft were slow, rather clunky and fragile.

Coming into contact with their faster opposite numbers, often flown by better-trained pilots, many were shot down.

Machines became faster and more sophisticated as the technology developed, and combat in the air became keener.

Though limited by their primitive machines, these knights of the sky went on to achieve some of the war’s most extraordinary, and often downright suicidal, feats of heroism.

Many of the pilots of both sides became national heroes and household names.

The average life expectancy of a pilot on the Western Front could often be measured in weeks, but not before British flying aces such as Albert Ball, Edward Mannock and James McCudden notched up large numbers of kills.

Perhaps the most famous of all Great War pilots was Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, whose distinctive red aeroplane was the scourge of the RFC until he was shot down in April 1918.

The Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project has identified nearly a dozen men with RFC connections who died during the war.

A couple were pilots, but most were ground crew.

The circumstances of these men’s lives, and deaths, are currently being researched.

Some will have died as a direct result of combat, but many others will have died due to illness, such as the rampaging Spanish flu, which killed more people than the war itself, or in accidents.

They include men such as Patrick James Duffy and John Hector Taylor, of Wallsend; Alfred Lynes and Arnold Mullen, of Whitley Bay; James Wilson Neil, of Willington Quay; and Charles Gordon Proctor, of Benton.

Also among them was 20-year-old 2nd Lieutenant W Kinghorn, whose parents ran the George Stephenson pub at West Moor.

The project has estimated that 5,000 men from the borough of North Tyneside perished in the Great War. Some 1,800 casualties have already been researched by an earlier project centred on Tynemouth, and they are now on a free and accessible database.