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The story of legendary test pilot Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown and the Seafire ‘crabbed’ landing

On most if not all the Seafire carrier tests Brown carried out, he eschewed the curved approach in favour of a technique called the ‘crabbed’ landing.

The naval version of the immortal Spitfire had a complicated and sometimes difficult journey into service, but it finally arrived with front-line Fleet Air Arm Squadrons at just the right time. The Seafire was by no means ideal as a naval fighter – lacking endurance and being difficult to land on a carrier – but it gave the Royal Navy an interceptor with superlative performance in the air, helping to turn the tables on the enemy as the Allies went on the offensive.

The Seafire served in the Second World War from the North Atlantic to Japan, and into the 1950s, seeing action in Malaya and Korea. As told by Naval aviation historian Matthew Willis in his book Supermarine Seafire, Captain Eric Melrose ‘Winkle’ Brown, widely regarded as Britain’s greatest ever pilot, conducted a significant proportion of the Seafire’s deck landing assessment when at the Royal Aircraft Establishment and the FAA Service Trials Unit.

In September 1942, Brown was selected to carry out deck-landing trials on an escort carrier, clearly with the upcoming invasion of North Africa in mind. He flew his Seafire Ib to HMS Biter and landed with no problems, despite the carrier being not prepared for deck landings, the wires not raised and the ship’s head not even pointing entirely into wind, as recorded in the book Wings of the Navy. Three months later, Brown undertook a series of landings and take-offs aboard HMS Activity with the L IIc. The potency of the Merlin 32-engined L IIc on take-off during these tests persuaded the FAA, according to Brown, to convert all Mk IIs to the low-altitude variant. In early 1943, he was RATOG, followed by deck-landing trials with the Mk III in June that year, and in August, low-wind-speed landing trials aboard HMS Fencer, Tracker and Pretoria Castle, because of conditions expected during the Salerno landings – which turned out to be correct. With the problems experienced during that operation. Brown undertook yet more low-wind-speed landing trials with modified, strengthened aircraft, this time on HMS Ravager, reducing the ship’s speed one knot at a time until finally his propeller ‘pecked’ the deck and a replacement aircraft was needed.

Eric Melrose ‘Winkle’ Brown

On most if not all the carrier tests Brown carried out, he eschewed the curved approach in favour of a technique called the `crabbed’ landing. He described it thus: “As I closed towards the stern, I swung the nose to starboard with the rudder, and counteracted the swing by putting on slight opposite bank. In this way I made the Seafire crab in sideways, so that I had a view of the deck over the leading edge of the wing.” This approach worked well for Brown, being an expert pilot with the skill to maintain the delicate balance required to fly obliquely, as it would increase drag and allowed a slower landing speed. Nevertheless, the technique was criticised as being too difficult for the average service pilot to master. Jeffrey Quill recommended that “Pilots had to be trained to employ a curved approach to the deck as the crabbed approach was acceptable only for skilled and experienced pilots.”

In 1944 Brown became Chief Naval Test Pilot at the RAE – a post he obtained when his predecessor was killed landing a Seafire on a carrier … Brown made the first deck-landing of a Mk XV, and then worked with Quill on the type’s deck-landing trials in October/ November 1944.

Brown has been linked, rather unfairly, to the controversy around the Seafire’s approval for service use and its subsequent accident-prone career. Fleet Air Arm pilot Henry ‘Hank’ Adlam was scathing in his criticism of the Seafire’s approval for service use and the recommendation of the ‘crabbed’ landing technique, attributing both to Brown. It was in fact Lieutenant-Commander Bramwell who approved the Seafire as suitable for deck landing, and the ‘crabbed’ approach was never the recommended one, the curved approach being favoured.

Winkle’s’ attitude to the Seafire was similar to that of many FAA pilots: that it was somewhat compromised as a deck-landing fighter but handled beautifully in the air – he described the Griffon-engined Seafire as “sheer magic”.  

Supermarine Seafire is published by Mortons Books and is available to order here along with many other beautiful aviation books. Save 10% on all books with exclusive promotional code ‘AVGEEK10’!

Photo credit: Imperial War Museum via Wikipedia

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