Wing Commander Ken Wallis: Bomber pilot and inventor who put James Bond into the air

 

Ken Wallis was a wartime hero who completed 28 hazardous bombing missions over Europe. He became known in later life for his inventions, one of which led to his appearance as Sean Connery's stunt double as James Bond in the explosive aerial sequence in You Only Live Twice, when he flew "Little Nellie", a gyrocopter he had designed and built himself.

Wallis, who had never seen a Bond film, had accepted an invitation to meet the films' producer Cubby Broccoli and, after a liquid lunch, started up his machine and disappeared into a cloud of dust. After he had reappeared he got the job and was told he would be Connery's double. The thrilling fight sequence, which lasted seven minutes on screen, took 85 flights and 46 hours in the air to shoot. Although Wallis toured the world promoting the film, which was released in 1967, his name never appeared in the credits.

Wallis went on to hand-build another 17 tiny twin rotor-powered aircraft, while notching up 34 autogyro world records for speed, circuit and altitude between 1968 and 2002, 17 of which he still holds. In 1975 he made the then the longest flight in an autogyro (6hr 25min), covering the length of Britain – "I'd have gone further, but we ran out of land," he said. In March 1998, at 81 years and 336 days he became the oldest pilot to set a world record when he "accidentally" achieved the fastest climb to 3,000ft – "I did it in seven minutes 20 seconds and I never bothered trying to improve on that." And in 2002 he broke his own 3km speed record, at 129.1mph.

Asked why he had built so many machines, he said, "It's a bit like having a harem; they all do the same basic thing, but it all depends what you're in the mood for, whether you want a good meal cooked, or maybe something a bit sexier..."

There was, in fact, much more to Wallis than autogyros. He was a Second World War bomber pilot, armaments expert, engineer, inventor, marksman, photographer, stuntman and test pilot. As the aviation writer Stephen Slater said, "He was a British hero. There's no other way to describe him. He was quite a spectacular character and the fact that he was still flying within just a few months of his passing was remarkable."

Wallis's wartime experiences read like a Jack Higgins novel. He survived mid-air explosions, crash landings and bailing out, completing 28 missions over northern Europe. He earned the nickname "Crasher" after a series of crash landings; in one, his Wellington bomber lurched home with 115 holes; in another a wing was flapping off after a collision with a barrage balloon and in a third the underside of the plane was enveloped in flames after an explosion in the bomb bay. "I went through a lot of aircraft," he said.

Kenneth Horatio Wallis was born in Ely in 1916 and educated at The King's School. Adventure and a thirst for speed were in his blood: in 1910 his father Horatio and uncle Percy, sons of a well-to-do Cambridge grocer and tea importer, built, flew and duly crashed their own monoplane, the Wallbro, attempting to fly the first all-British plane and win a prize of £1,000. At the age of 11, Ken was helping in his father's motorcycle and cycle business and building and riding his own motorbikes. In his teens he was designing, building and racing powerboats and sportscars. He also enjoyed success as a marksman.

In the 1930s he volunteered for the RAF's volunteer reserve service but failed the medical due to poor sight in his right eye. Unperturbed, he secured a private flying licence when his GP failed to check his eyesight when he signed him off. He obtained his A Licence for dual and solo flying in a record 12 hours and made his first solo flight in 1937.

With the outbreak of war in 1939 Wallis joined the RAF, cheating the optician in his final eye test by reading the letters back with his good eye when the doctor was changing the cards. Initially flying the Lysander on Army Cooperation duties with 268 Squadron, he was transferred to Bomber Command in 1941 and was soon in action, piloting Wellington bombers with 103 Squadron out of RAF Elsham Wolds, North Lincolnshire, and then serving in Italy with 37 Squadron.

After the war he spent 20 years in weapons research and development, investigating and testing captured enemy equipment, modifying optimum bombing procedures for the Canberra, Britain's first jet bomber and testing the Mach 2, later known as the Lightning. In 1956 he went on a two-year posting to the US Strategic Air Command, flying nuclear-armed Convair RB-36s. He continued to race powerboats and exhibit his hand-built and "improved" Rolls-Royce "Long Dog" touring car to great success across the US. He left the RAF in 1964 and autogyros became his passion.

Lacking formal engineering qualifications, Wallis used a mixture of the "bloody obvious" combined with commonsense and was credited with a key innovation which made autogyros more reliable, using "back of the envelope" calculations to construct a motor head design which moderated their tendency to enter a steep climb when flown too fast, with a risk of the rotors cutting off their own tails. Finishing touches included a mounted 35mm camera, enabling stunning aerial photographs, and the ability to hover without the pilot touching the controls. Wallis used the autogyro to aid police searches, including looking for the graves of murder victims, searching for the Loch Ness monster in 1970 and hunting Lord Lucan on the Sussex Downs in 1974.

Wallis was also an inventor of some repute. In 1942, in his spare time between bombing raids, he invented a predecessor to Scalextric, which appeared in 1957. "Mine was more realistic," he claimed. "It had front wheels which really steered round corners," The cars used motors taken from a computer on a German bomber. In 1945 he created a 16mm spy camera that could be worn as a wristwatch with a capacity for 100 shots on a length of cine film.

After the war the fliers had been vilified for carrying out orders from Bomber Command chief Arthur "Bomber" Harris to carpet-bomb German cities in devastating night offensives; Wallis finally received his Bomber Command golden clasp for his time in 103 Squadron in July this year. "It's a bit late," he remarked, "and long overdue. There were 56,000 who were killed in Bomber Command and when we finished operations we thought we would get medals. It was a terrible disappointment when we didn't."

Kenneth Horatio Wallis, pilot, scientist and inventor: born Ely, Cambridgeshire 26 April 1916; MBE 1996; married 1943 Peggy Stapley Officer (died 2003; one son, two daughters); died Reymerston, Norfolk 1 September 2013.

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