Obituary: Wing Commander Kenneth Wallis, MBE

Wing Commander Ken Wallis. Picture: Contributed
Wing Commander Ken Wallis. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 26 April, 1916, in Cambridgeshire. Died: 1 September, 2013, in Ely, Cambridgeshire, aged 97

Wing Commander Kenneth Wallis flew 28 missions with Bomber Command over Germany but in the post-war years became known for his championing of the autogyro – the one-man mini-helicopter powered by twin propellers, one above and one behind. He was keen to develop it commercially and became well known for his connection with James Bond.

In 1966, working on research for the Bond film You Only Live Twice, the designer Ken Adam heard a radio interview with Wallis about his autogyros. Wallis was asked if he would like to take on helicopters. His eyes lit up. “You mean the big boys? Give me a chance,” he replied with typical enthusiasm.

In fact Wallis piloted the autogyro – known as “Little Nellie” on the set – in the movie.

In one of the most dramatic and memorable scenes, Sean Connery unpacks “Little Nellie” from a suitcase and fights baddies in far better equipped orthodox helicopters. To add a touch of danger Wallis flew around an active volcano.

He only met Sean Connery once during filming in Japan and confessed he had never actually seen a Bond film

Recently this most retiring but adventurous airman admitted: “Sean Connery had to sit in the autogyro and put on the helmet, but then he had to get out and it was me who did the first take-off.

“I had to do 81 flights and was in the air for more than 44 hours. It was hard work but fun when it was finished. The funny thing is I don’t even get a mention in the credits.”

Worse was the instruction from the film’s producer Cubby Broccoli.

“Cubby told me to shave off my handlebar moustache so I could double for Sean Connery. That was a shock,” he revealed.Kenneth Horatio Wallis’s father ran a cycle and motorcycle shop and he was educated at The King’s School, Ely.

From a young age he was fascinated with machines and how things work. He had a malfunctioning right eye but obtained a flying licence in 1936.

He was twice turned down but when war broke out he bluffed his way through the medical and joined Bomber Command in 1941. He flew Wellingtons with No 103 Squadron primarily attacking Germany’s industrial heartland of the Ruhr.

Returning from Frankfurt in 1941, Wallis found his airfield blanketed by fog. He made a number of abortive attempts to land but, with his fuel tanks almost dry, he climbed so that his crew could bail out.

Wallis’s parachute stuck as he was about to jump and he only scrambled out in time.

Despite some hair-raising crashes he survived and flew at the end of the war with Bomber Command in Italy then, during a two-year posting to the USAF’s Strategic Air Command in the 1950s, he flew B-36s laden with nuclear bombs over the North Pole.

It was while in the United States that his fascination with the autogyro began. He returned to Britain to be the command armament officer at Fighter Command, leaving the RAF in 1964 with the rank of Wing Commander. Wallis visited air shows and displays to drum up interest in the autogyro.

He believed the machine could be of value for reconnaissance and research purposes for the military.

His plans never really materialised, and, apart from the Bond project, Wallis and the autogyro gained a high profile through two other non-military commissions. Wallis provided camera footage in a concerted search for the Loch Ness Monster in 1970. He flew up and down the loch taking photographs of the deepest parts of the loch, hovering over the darkest waters for many minutes.

His films never proved there was any mammal in the waters.

Wallis joined the hunt for Lord Lucan who disappeared after the family nanny was shot in London’s Belgravia in 1974. Amidst much talk of a conspiracy Lucan disappeared after the murder. Over three years from 2006, Wallis shot extensive aerial footage of the Sussex Downs, where it has been suggested Lucan may have committed suicide, for a TV documentary (Into the Wind) .

Wallis, who was awarded the MBE in 1996 and two months ago his Bomber Command clasp, was a total enthusiast. He had more than ten autogyros and in his Norfolk village he was a much-loved character.

An affable “Biggles” character in a shirt and tie with his white hair rakishly slicked back would hedge-hop over the fields strapped in with only an elementary safety belt. Until he was 94 Wallis, this magnificent man in his flying machine, would be spotted in the air.

In 1942 he married Peggy Stapley who predeceased him. They had a son and two daughters.