Wing Commander Ken Wallis: James Bond stunt man, autogyro pioneer, inventor – a local hero and a national treasure

Wing Commander Ken Wallis taking off in one of his collection of autogyros in 2010.

Wing Commander Ken Wallis taking off in one of his collection of autogyros in 2010. - Credit: Archant © 2010

It was truly the most extraordinary of Norfolk lives – and it came to an end when Wing Commander Ken Wallis died at the age of 97.

Wing Commander Ken Wallis at his workbench. Date: Dec 1991.

Wing Commander Ken Wallis at his workbench. Date: Dec 1991. - Credit: Archant

Although best known for playing Sean Connery's stunt double in one of the most famous James Bond sequences, his achievements covered decades both before and after You Only Live Twice.

Ken Wallis, who has died aged 97

Ken Wallis, who has died aged 97 - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2010

It was as if he was born to live out his life in the wide open skies. In 1908, his father and uncle decided to build a flying machine in their home in Cambridge, and the Wallbro Monoplane, which flew in 1910, used technology well in advance of its contemporaries.

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He was born in Ely in 1916, at the height of the first world war, and trips to airshows with his father sparked a life-time's interest in flight. Despite poor sight in one eye, he gained his private pilot's licence in 1937 without an eye test, and made his first solo flight in a de Havilland Gipsy Moth.

He was summoned to RAF Uxbridge at the outbreak of the second world war, and started flying Westland Lysanders after cheating in an eye test.

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His wartime experiences read like an Ian Fleming story, surviving mid-air explosions and crash landings, completing 24 missions over northern Europe.

He then spent 20 years as a scientist and pilot working in armament and weapon research, examining and testing captured enemy equipment during the war, creating the optimum bombing-up procedures for Britain's first jet bomber, and testing the Mach 2 –later known as the Lightning.

During a two-year posting with American Strategic Air Command in the 1950s, he flew nuclear-armed B36s – missions he later described as 'creepy' – but after leaving the RAF in 1964, autogyros became his passion.

He was credited with a key innovation which made them more reliable, using 'back of the envelope' calculations to create a motor head design which mitigated their tendency to enter a steep climb if they were flown too fast, risking their rotors cutting off their own tails.

Between 1968 and 2002, Wing Cdr Wallis set 34 world records, many of which still stand today, including the 3km speed record for autogyros, which he set at 207.7kph.

One six-hour, 25-minute flight in 1975 saw him cover the length of the UK.

He had never seen a James Bond film when he was asked to pilot the autogyro in You Only Live Twice. The scene was filmed in Japan and he only met Connery once, when he filmed a briefing with Q in the autogyro.

Last year he said: 'I think it was a good film. People say it must have been fun to film but it was 85 flights and 46 hours in the air to make seven minutes on screen.'

The autogyro, which he designed himself, was nicknamed Little Nellie, and although Wing Cdr Wallis toured America, Germany and Australia with it to promote the film, his name did not appear in the credits.

He thought of the autogyro, which is able to hover without the pilot touching the controls, as a tool for crime investigations and search and rescues, and he scanned the Sussex Downs looking for Lord Lucan, and took part in a 1970 search for the Loch Ness monster.

Wing Cdr Wallis was also an inventor of some repute, and would take pleasure guiding visitors around the inventions in his hangar and home.

A 16mm spy camera he created in 1945 could be worn as a wristwatch, and had a capacity for 100 shots on a length of cine film. It was only 2.5 inches long.

His designed the world's first electric slot-car race track, pre-dating the earliest Scalextric by 15 years.

He built it in 1942, using the air-raid black-out boards of his Nissen hut, and the cars, which had front-wheel steering, used motors from a computer from a German bomber. The cars and track remain in his Reymerston Hall home, near Dereham, in working order.

But his eldest daughter, Vicky Wallis, said that his 'crown jewels' were the miniature working pistols he designed.

In the days before his death he asked for them to be brought to his bedside so they could be oiled properly.

For 75 years he was devoted to flight, and continued to give the Civil Aviation Authority the jitters when he talked of chasing more world records well into his 90s.

Last year he admitted: 'I often think that at my age I really shouldn't fly any more, but I like to have a reason. I ought to be thinking seriously about this world record again, but I don't know if I will do it.'

He never made the attempt, but said the problem was the logistics to get the record recognised: 'Doing the flight is the easy bit, but getting people in the right place at the right time is rather more difficult.'

Last October, he received the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators' Award of Honour at the London Guildhall, recognising his 'exceptional service and devotion to aviation'.

He was made an MBE in 1996, and this summer he finally received his Bomber Command medal for his time in the 103 Squadron based at RAF Elsham Wolds, in North Lincolnshire, 71 years ago.

He was a familiar Norfolk figure, often appearing at air shows and public occasions with his autogyros, happily reminiscing and signing postcards from his James Bond escapade. He was the most famous resident of Reymerston, where the distinctive sound of autogyro engines being fired up was a familiar sound.

In May this year, he unveiled the new village sign, complete with a carving of him in his flying machine in the sky above, ensuring he will be remembered in his home village for generations to come.

Wing Cdr Wallis died in the early hours of Sunday morning.

A private funeral will take place at a date to be arranged, and his family requested privacy at this time.

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.'

Wing Cdr Wallis had been president of the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum in Flixton, Suffolk, since 1976.

Museum chairman Ian Hancock said: 'Ken was inspirational and a great role model.

'He was able to appeal to people of all ages, and would captivate his audience, of one or many, from the informality of a village hall to a lecture theatre of a learned body.

'He briefly touched the lives of so many people. In short, he was a local hero and a national treasure.'

See tomorrow's EDP for more tributes and coverage.

• From the archives:

Film charts life of Norfolk's flying James Bond

Wing Cdr Ken Wallis, 97, finally gets his Bomber Command medal

Norfolk's Ken Wallis aims for autogyro speed record

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