Wing Commander Kenneth Wallis
Wing Commander Kenneth Wallis was a wartime bomber pilot who flew 28 missions over Germany; but he became better known after the war as a key figure in the development of the autogyro, which, most famously, he flew as Sean Connery's stunt double in the 1967 James Bond film 'You Only Live Twice.'
Wing Commander Kenneth Wallis (courtesy Julian Andrews)
One interviewer observed that if a screenwriter had invented Wallis, with his air of derring-do and rakish white handlebar moustache, they would have been told to come back with a more realistic character. Part Biggles, part Professor Branestawm, he became involved in all kinds of historic events.
Among other things, he flew B-36s laden with nuclear bombs over the North Pole; hunted Lord Lucan over the Sussex Downs; scanned the deep waters of Loch Ness for the 'monster' and advised the designers of Concorde on how to reduce engine noise.
Wallis inherited a love of tinkering and 'the family vice' - a love of speed - from his father Horatio and uncle Percy who, in 1910, inspired by the Wright Brothers’ first flight in France, built the 'Walbro monoplane' in a bid to scoop the £1,000 prize for the first all-British aeroplane. They missed out by a couple of months, but still flew (and duly pranged) their flying machine.
Wallis himself began building autogyros - a bit like tiny helicopters but with twin propellers, one above and one behind - in 1959, and by the end of his life he had some 18 of the machines, in varying states of flight-worthiness. They occupied a workshop in the grounds of his home near Dereham, Norfolk, spilling out into the rest of his house and jostling for space with numerous other inventions - mini cameras, scale models of bomb-loading trolleys, model racing cars and bits and pieces salvaged from German wartime jet engines.
He never had formal training as an engineer, preferring to apply 'the bloody obvious combined with common sense'. One of his inventions was a trap set up in his workshop to trick burglars, which had a tendency to go off every time he walked into it.
Wallis became a familiar figure in Norfolk, whizzing demonically across the sky at air shows and public occasions, and suffering his fair share of bumps and scrapes in the process - including an occasion when, aged 90, a freak gust brought him crashing to the ground in front of spectators. 'It was embarrassing,' he admitted,' although I have to say it was a model crash landing.'
What he called his 'harem' of autogyros was used to set 34 world records, of which he still held eight at his death. Among other achievements, he set a record in 1975 (now superseded) for the longest flight in an autogyro when he flew the entire length of the British Isles (I'd have gone further, but we ran out of land'). He also flew an autogyro at 18,976ft without oxygen, became the oldest pilot to set a world record when, aged 81, he 'accidentally' achieved the fastest climb to 3,000ft, in 7 minutes 20 seconds and he set a world speed record for an autogyro of 129.1mph at the age of 89.
To his great regret Wallis never found a commercial manufacturer for his autogyros, although he was delighted when the James Bond film producer Cubby Broccoli recognised its dramatic potential, 'I was asked to demonstrate it to him at Pinewood Studios, taking off on the back lot along a short strip of concrete towards a pile of railway sleepers - the basis of a 'volcano’. I disappeared in a cloud of dust and everyone waited for me to crash - but my autogyro climbed away safely. Broccoli immediately said, 'Get it to Japan in six weeks.'
Wallis and his autogyro,'Little Nellie', were duly dispatched to the set of You Only Live Twice, where Wallis stood in for Sean Connery in a famous sequence in which 'Bond', in a rocket-firing autogyro, fights baddies in orthodox helicopters, zipping around an active volcano - while Connery sat in a replica in Pinewood with a fan ruffling his shirt and pretended to be flying'.
'Broccoli told me to shave off my handlebar moustache so I could double for Sean Connery, which was a bit of a shock, 'Wallis recalled. 'The Japanese pilot of the camera helicopter had trained as a kamikaze, which caused me a little concern, but in fact he was a very nice chap. There was no mention of me in the credits, which was a mistake, obviously. But the tours in America and Australia were great fun.'
In the light of all this it is astounding to think that when Wallis first applied to join the RAF, in the 1930s, he was turned down twice due to defective eyesight.
Kenneth Horatio Wallis was born in Ely, where his father ran a cycle and motorcycle shop, and was educated at The King’s School, Ely. He developed an interest in mechanics tinkering in his father’s workshop, and built his first motorbike aged 11. Later he moved on to high-speed boats, some driven by aircraft propellers, which he made himself, and custom-built cars.
Wallis had been born with limited vision in his right eye and as a child wore an eye patch; in 1936 this defect led to his rejection by the RAF. Undeterred, he paid £14 to obtain a private flying licence which required only a certificate signed by his GP, obtaining the licence after just 12 hours flying a Gypsy Moth. Having failed another test for the RAF in 1938, when he tried again after the outbreak of war Wallis decided to cheat. While the doctor’s back was turned, he sneaked a look with his good eye at the bottom line of letters on the test chart and passed.
After flying Westland Lysander patrols with No 268 Squadron, in 1941 Wallis transferred to Bomber Command, flying Wellingtons with No 103 Squadron, based at RAF Elsham Wolds in north Lincolnshire, attacking heavily defended targets in the Ruhr. Though he survived 28 missions over cities in Germany he gained something of a reputation for being accident prone, earning the nickname'Crasher'.
Returning from Frankfurt in September 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 to allow his crew to bail out. After they had done so, Wallis’s parachute snagged on his seat - he finally got clear at very low level, and his parachute opened only seconds before he hit the ground.
On another occasion, the wing of his Wellington was almost severed by a balloon cable and he managed to crash land.
After a tour as a bombing instructor, Wallis left for Italy and flew bombing operations with No 37 Squadron. Having survived another crash when his aircraft was struck by lightning, he applied to fly Mosquito bombers at night - a mistake, as it meant that his night vision was tested.'All hell let loose - 'You’ve been flying with a bomber crew and you can’t see properly!' he recalled being told. But the RAF ophthalmologist was more positive. 'He said, 'Wallis, I’d rather have a man with a bit of fire in his belly who wants to fly than some of the perfect specimens I get here who don’t.’'
To amuse himself and other aircrew between missions, Wallis built model slot-racing cars powered by tiny electric motors, racing them on a disused blackout board. This was years before the development of Scalextric, and as Wallis recalled, 'Mine was more realistic - it had front wheels which really steered round corners.'
Wallis remained in the post-war RAF and specialised as an armament officer, among other things solving the problems of loading bombs efficiently on to the RAF’s first jet bomber, the Canberra, and testing the Mach 2 – later known as the Lightning.
During a two-year posting to the USAF’s Strategic Air Command armament and electronics division in the 1950s, he flew B-36s laden with nuclear bombs over the North Pole and participated in powerboat races in vessels that he made from redundant parts, winning the 56-mile Missouri Marathon. He also set about building his first autogyro.
He returned to Britain to be the Command Armament Officer at Fighter Command.
Wallis demonstrated his autogyros at numerous RAF air shows before leaving the RAF in 1964 in the rank of wing commander. He moved to Norfolk, hoping that he would be able to put them into commercial production for 'reconnaissance, research and development, surveillance and military purposes'. But it never happened. Instead, during the 1970s, he worked with a company that pioneered a type of multi-spectral aerial photography that could detect where bodies were buried, as a result of which he was called in to help in several high-profile missing-person searches.
In 1970 he joined the hunt for the Loch Ness Monster, spending two days in the air taking pictures, but with no result. In 1975 he was called in by the police to help search for the fugitive peer Lord Lucan: 'They thought he might have committed suicide in Newhaven, so I drove down with the autogyro on a trailer and had a good look, but he wasn’t there.'
In 2010 the 94-year-old Wallis was reported to be furious that his plan to break his own autogyro speed record had been frustrated by the Civil Aviation Authority’s decision to impose a speed limit of 70mph for autogyros. The CAA agreed to give him special one-off permission to breach the limit, but in the event he never made the attempt.
Wallis received many national and international awards, was appointed MBE in 1996 and in July this year was awarded his Bomber Command clasp, 68 years after he risked his life over Germany. It was an award that meant much to him.
In 1942 he married Peggy Stapley, a WAAF officer, who predeceased him. They had a son and two daughters.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.