Autogyro pioneer Wing Commander Ken Wallis dies aged 97

The autogyro pioneer is most famous for flying as a stuntman in ‘You Only Live Twice’, and also held a number of world records for autogyro flights.

Pilot is saddened to learn that Wg Cdr Kenneth Wallis MBE, DEng (hc), CEng, FRAeS, FSETP, PhD (hc), RAF (Ret’d) passed away on 1 September, aged 97.

Wg Cdr Wallis had a life-long passion for aviation. After making his first solo flight at Cambridge in 1937 in a de Havilland Gipsy Moth, Wallis flew Westland Lysanders and completed 24 wartime missions over Northern Europe in Vickers Wellington bombers, despite having poor sight in one eye.

He then spent twenty years as a scientist and pilot engaged in armament and weapon research. His activities included examining and testing captured enemy armament, creating the optimum bombing-up procedures for the English-Electric Canberra; Britain’s first jet bomber. He also tested weapons for the Mach 2 fighter later known as the Lightning.

Upon leaving the RAF in 1964, he turned his attention to autogyros and has been credited with creating a motor head design that mitigated their tendency to enter a steep climb if flown too quickly, risking their rotors cutting off their own tails. Famously he created autogyro ‘Little Nellie’, which he then flew as Sean Connery’s stunt double in ‘You Only Live Twice’.

Between 1968 and 2002 he set 34 world records, many of which he still held at the time of his passing. Among those still standing is the 3km speed world record for autogyros which, in 2001, he set at 207.7 kph.

The Wallis family’s interests in aviation date back to 1908, when Ken’s father and uncle decided to build a flying machine at their home in Cambridge. The ‘Wallbro Monoplane’ flew in 1910, used steel tube construction and was fitted with ailerons, well in advance of its wing-warped contemporaries. In 1973, Ken and his cousin Geoffrey began to create a flying replica, which was flown by Ken in 1978.

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Among his other inventions were a 16mm camera, created in 1945 with capacity for 100 shots on a length of cine film. It could be worn as a wristwatch as it was only 2½ inches long. Ken also devised the world’s first electric slot-car race track. According to biographer Ian Hancock, the track was built in 1942, using the air-raid black-out boards of his Nissen hut. The cars, which had front wheel steering, ultimately used motors from an electro-mechanical navigation and bomb-aiming computer extracted from a German Arado 234 bomber.

Last year, Wg Cdr Wallis received lifetime achievement awards from both the Royal Aero Club and the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators; he was still flying in his 75th year as a pilot.

Speaking in tribute, His Honour Judge Tudor Wyn Owen QC, the Master of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators said: “Wg Cdr Wallis will be remembered for his ingenuity, energy and perseverance over a lifelong involvement in aviation, and for his charming personality.”