The Importance of BRIE

For those of us who have an association with military helicopters, Wing Commander Reginald Alfred Charles Brie played an important part in introducing them into military service.

Wing Commander Reggie Brie was the man who pioneered rotary-winged aircraft deck landings in the mid-1930s.

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the Air Ministry asked him to prepare the autogyros that supported Lord Gort and the British Expeditionary Force in an Army Co-operation role in France. He then established a rotary wing unit that played a key role in the Air Defence of Great Britain in 1940. In 1941 Brie was sent to America to demonstrate autogyros and their possible use as an antisubmarine platform – while there he realised that autogyros had had their day, helicopters were the future. After WWII Reggie Brie was a founder member of both the Helicopter Association of Great Britain and the American Helicopter Society. He held the first Helicopter Aviator’s Certificate in the UK and a Commercial Helicopter Pilots Licence. He did much work to introduce the helicopter into the civilian market and in 1954 the Royal Aeronautical Society awarded him the British Silver Medal for Aeronautics. So who was Reggie Brie?


Born in Egham on 27th November 1895, newspaper articles sparked Reggie Brie’s early interest in aircraft. In 1909, at the age of 14, and after witnessing a Bleriot force-land at Uxbridge near his home, Reggie started attending the weekend flying meetings at Hendon that were held before the outbreak of WWI. He aspired to join the balloon section of the Royal Flying Corps, but his parents thought otherwise and he was apprenticed as an electrical engineer in Southall.

At the outbreak of the war in August 1914 he tried to join the RFC but was told that he would have to wait six weeks. Concerned that he would miss the war he joined the Royal Field Artillery and by early 1915 he was serving in France. He was then moved to Salonika and because of his knowledge of aircraft he became the battery spotter. When promoted to Sergeant he was recommended for a commission and sent back to England for training.

Once back in England he transferred to the RFC and, because of his gunner’s experience, trained as an observer, posted to 104 Squadron at Andover on completion of his training. In May 1918 the Squadron flew to Azelot, near Nancy in France, to become part of the Independent Air Force, the early forerunner of RAF Bomber Command. During an unescorted early morning raid, Brie and his pilot were shot down by German fighters. Both airmen were taken prisoner, and Brie spent time in five POW camps before the war ended. He was repatriated back to Britain in time for Christmas Day 1918 and was posted to No 2 Group at Merton College, Oxford as Transport Officer, where one of his commanding officers was Lieutenant Colonel Philip Joubert de la Ferté, No 33 Squadron’s first CO.

In September 1919 Brie was granted a short-service commission and in December he was posted to No 99 Squadron in Risalpur, later numbered No 27 Squadron. After a short stay, Flying Officer Brie was back in England with the Inspectorate of Recruiting, so it was not until August 1921 that he completed his pilot training course at Leuchars, going solo after 10hrs dual. Brie only served for another year before he took a job with the Shell Oil Company and went on to the RAF Reserve list, flying 12hrs per year at the London Flying Club, often referred to as the de Havilland School of Flying. Achieving his pilot’s B licence there he also became interested in autogyros.


On 6th August 1930 Brie arranged to have his first Autogyro flight with Captain Valentine Baker, who was demonstrating a Cierva C.19 for the Cierva Company at Heston Aerodrome near Hounslow. Two weeks later, on 20th August, after 30 minutes dual instruction with Cierva’s test pilot, Brie went solo in the C.19. In November Brie was waiting for a refresher flight when news came through that Rawson had been injured in a ‘mishap’ and broken his ankle, thus precluding him from displaying the C.19 near Paris the following month. As a result of his keenness and flying ability, James Weir offered Brie a short three month contract as an Autogyro pilot with the company and the opportunity to step in for Rawson and fly a C.19 over to Paris. Despite being a married man with two children, and just three hours solo Autogyro flying, Reggie resigned from his job at Shell and arrived in a Cierva C.19 at Orly on 18th December 1930. Brie would remain with the Cierva Company until it shut down in 1940.

For the next five years Reggie faced an uphill task establishing the autogyro as a serious flying machine. By the end of 1931 he had become the Chief Pilot and Flying Manager of the Cierva Company, having helped to promote sales and publicity for Cierva Autogyros that summer by flying C.19 Mark III with C. D. Barnard’s Flying Circus, gaining an additional 400 flying hours. The following year he helped establish the sales department and the Cierva Autogyro Flying School at London Air Park, Hanworth. The Cierva Flying School guaranteed to give all dual flying necessary to qualify, plus one hour solo, for £5. The school became well established with students from home and overseas.

In 1933, Brie was convicted of “low and dangerous flying” in an autogyro over the Kingston Bypass road, adjacent to Hook Aerodrome, Surrey. He became the first pilot to win an appeal against a conviction for a flying offence, and it set a legal precedent allowing low flying near an airfield when there is no danger, irrespective of the alarm displayed by animals or motorists


In 1935 Brie went to Italy with the Autogyro to fulfil a contract with the Italian Navy, tasked to land on and take off from a 90ft x 30ft platform built over the quarter deck of the Italian cruiser Fiume. Landings were made while the ship was moored in Spezia harbour and whilst it was under way at sea. The trials while the ship was stationary were satisfactory, with the ship across the wind, but those with the ship underway would probably not pass the H&S regulations or stringent risk assessments we are used to today. At sea the Fiume steamed at 18kts and Brie had a passenger on board. Attempting to cut his landing as fine as possible he caught his tail on the aft edge of the platform but managed to land safely.


In December 1939 Brie was asked by the Air Ministry to take on a task which probably had a direct effect on the outcome of the Battle of Britain and on 1st July 1940 Flying Officer RA Brie became the CO of the newly formed No 5 Radio Maintenance Unit at RAF Duxford, a unit which was retitled No 5 Radio Servicing School on 21st September 1940; by February 1941 the unit was part of No 74 (Signals) Wing. The unit was equipped with about 16 autogyros built by A V Roe & Co Ltd (Avro) under licence from the Cierva Autogyro Company; the autogyros were designated Avro Rotas. The Rotas were well suited for the slow, precise flying needed to calibrate the aerial arrays of coastal defence Chain Home radar installations. The Rotas usually operated on individual detachments consisting of a pilot, fitter and rigger, flying out into the English Channel and back from an airfield close to the radar station to which they were assigned for calibration. While the Rota could not hover it could fly in a very tight orbit at various heights, enabling the ground radar station to calibrate its equipment. Fighter escorts were provided in areas where enemy aircraft might be encountered.

On 9th April 1941 Brie had handed over command of the unit to Squadron Leader Marsh who commanded the unit until the end of the war seeing it reform as No 529 Squadron and move to Upper Culham Farm, aka RAF Henley on Thames. The Squadron was unique in that it was the only rotating-wing unit in the Service and the first RAF squadron to fly a helicopter for operational use when they received their first Sikorsky YR-4, designated Hoverfly. Marsh would go on to become a founder member of the Helicopter Association of Great Britain with Reggie Brie and was its first chairman, from 1946 to 1949. Unfortunately both Marsh and Cable were killed on 13th June 1950 while testing the Cierva Air Horse near Eastleigh.

After leaving the Radar Calibration Unit, Reggie Brie was promoted to Acting Wing Commander and took command of the Technical Development Unit at the Central Landing Establishment, based at RAF Ringway. The unit carried out research and development of methods such as landing troops and equipment by parachute or by glider; notable projects were the Hafner Rotachute and Hafner Rotabuggy which used rotors instead of parachutes for air dispatch. At Ringway Brie collaborated with Raoul Hafner and Dr J.A.J. Bennett, both of whom were to become highly influential in post war military helicopter development.

In late 1941, Brie was sent to the United States to promote the use of autogyros on ships for convoy protection, advising the Admiralty on the development of the Pitcairn PA-39 autogyro, of which six had been ordered for the Fleet Air Arm the year before. On 12th to 13th May 1942, flying a PA-39, he made the first landings on a British merchant ship – the SS Empire Mersey – on a platform measuring just 80ft x 40ft. Although successful, Reggie Brie was about to have his ‘Eureka’ moment regarding the future of rotary wing development.

Les Morris, Igor Sikorsky’s test pilot, invited him to view films of the Vought-Sikorsky VS-300 helicopter in ‘free flight’, taken on 13th May 1940. On 20th April 1943 Brie, as part of the British Air Commission in the US, attended a demonstration of the Experimental XR-4 and was so impressed that he requested an opportunity to fly its production successor as soon as possible. His request was successful and he became the first British pilot to fly the prototype Sikorsky YR-4 helicopter, an aircraft that future British helicopter pilots would come to know as the Hoverfly.

After his flight Brie went straight to the head of the Commission, Air Marshal Sir Roderic Hill, and stated the helicopter’s ability to hover had eliminated the only serious disability of the autogyro. Action was swift and a large order for YR-4s was placed on behalf of the Admiralty. Brie conducted the first YR-4 deck-landing trials on the SS Daghestan after which the freighter departed New York on 6th January 1944. With two YR-4Bs on board this would be the first transatlantic convoy with helicopters in a flying role.

Unfortunately, the weather in the Atlantic was not conducive to flying trials, and it was not until the 16th and 17th that the weather was considered suitable. The helicopters conducted short flights but strong winds and the rolling freighter made flying and landing difficult. The YR-4B’s performance was subsequently deemed too marginal for use as an anti-submarine warfare aircraft. On arrival in Liverpool Brie and Cable flew two helicopters off the deck and landed at Speke airport, flying afterwards down to Hanworth. It was 24th January 1944 and the helicopter had arrived in Britain.


The US Navy had been unenthusiastic about autogyro / helicopter developments, despite their experiments in 1931, and it was the US Coastguard that realised their potential. In conjunction with Reggie Brie, a helicopter training school was established at Floyd Bennett Field near New York in 1944. RAF assistance was requested because the Royal Navy had no rotary wing pilots at that time to call upon. Reggie Brie recruited instructional staff from his former unit, now No 529 Squadron. By the end of May a cadre of 12 British instructors had been trained and the school was commissioned on 1st June 1944.

The US Army Air Forces’ Training Command (AAFTC) initiated its helicopter training at Freeman Field, Indiana in June 1944 with students accepted on 6th September. The training programme continued throughout that year with the last class (44-K) graduating on 1st February 1945. Reggie Brie was awarded one of the first helicopter ‘Certificates of Proficiency’ from the USAAF Helicopter Pilot Training Course at Freeman Field on 6th September 1944, making him an ‘Honorary Hoverbug’.

In Britain, RAF Andover became the first British military unit to be equipped with helicopters and the Helicopter Training School was formed in January 1945 under the command of Squadron Leader Basil Arkell. The Helicopter Training School was equipped with nine Sikorsky R-4B Hoverfly I helicopters, and trained British Army pilots for Air Observation Post duties, as well as pilots for No 529 Squadron.


After another trip to America, Reggie Brie spent a short time attached to the rotarywing section of the Directorate of Technical Development before joining the Fairey Aircraft Company after he was demobbed in late 1945. Reggie Brie returned to the United States in 1947 on behalf of the Ministry of Civil Aviation, to report on helicopter operations before being appointed as Officer in Charge of the British European Airways Helicopters (BEAH) Experimental Helicopter Unit in July. The unit was initially based at Gatwick Airport, moving to Yeovil in 1948 where regular mail flights were trialled in East Anglia and Dorset. He developed the commercial operations of the unit, and in 1952 set up a permanent base for it at the original site of Gatwick Airport. In 1958 he retired from BEA and joined Westland Helicopters as Personal Assistant to the Technical Director. In 1959, he was responsible for the planning and commissioning of the Westland-owned Battersea Heliport. Reggie Brie retired from Westland in 1969 and died in 1988 after a long and busy retirement.

Wing Commander Reginald Alfred Charles Brie was described in the 12th December 1946 edition of FLIGHT as follows: “It is fair to say that Brie has tested the possibilities of rotating-wing aircraft to a far greater extent, perhaps, than any other person in the world. On the uses and limitations of the Autogyro and helicopter he is an undoubted authority.”

For all of his pioneering work and efforts in rotary wing development, Wing Commander Reginald Brie deserves to be acknowledged and remembered by all British military helicopter aviators.