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Ken Wallis


Kenneth Horatio Wallis  (26.4.1916 –1.9.2013)

I first met Ken in the early ‘90s, through our mutual interest and respective roles at the Flixton Museum; Ken was President from 1976 and I became Chairman 10 years ago.  In 2000, I suggested I write an article about his life for the Museum newsletter as there was not much in print at that time - I naively thought something around 500 to 1,000 words.  Our first lunch chat produced several thousand!  Clearly, I wasn’t going to even scratch the surface at that rate.  Also, I soon found it would be quite confusing to try and produce a chronological record as Ken had involved himself in so many different projects and interests, sometimes simultaneously.  Each one required some depth with separate exploration and explanation.  Over the next 13 years I enjoyed the privilege of having frequent meetings with Ken, and scribbled down his views, thoughts, achievements, disappointments and concerns. He also provided notes on other things he would like included, and technical explanations.

I had always intended the story to be factual but light-hearted - rather like Ken in many ways.  Certainly it was not going to be an unauthorised biography, which would try to “dig the dirt” and leave the reader confused, with little to learn about the true man and his endeavours.  Naturally, not everything we discussed could be put into the book as some information included “trade secrets” about his autogyro design (nor could I fully comprehend everything as a non-aero engineer!); plus some  personal issues and observations where identities had to be shielded.  I therefore started out with his firm approval and unselfish help but I had never written a biography before this.  Frankly, it is not an easy task so I do hope I achieved what I set out to do in the eyes of the readers.   Ken regularly remarked that “it would never have been written without you”.  I always replied that I had the easy bit in writing about his life; he had to live it!   The title “The Lives Of Ken Wallis” amused him but I explained that with so much going on I honestly felt he had experienced more than one life.  It also disguised my slightly disjointed approach! Whatever the view, at least much of the information about his life can be found in one place, and he felt that the last edition, No. 5, was complete.

I last met Ken for a long lunch in May this year.  As usual, he was razor-sharp in his recollections of events during his lifetime and full of good humour, with some fruity language and a twinkle in his (good) eye.  Admittedly, he was getting frail and his eyesight was deteriorating but I still felt he had the edge over me when walking to and from the car.  He expressed various concerns about life - his own and in general (particularly our Armed Forces in the Middle East: “you should never mess about in Mesopotamia” per Ken) - but he would always make the same comment about his circumstances “If you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined”.  This oft-said phrase was a reflection upon how his life changed after appearing in the James Bond film “You Only Live Twice” - despite the strange omission of his name in the film credits. 

Flying “Little Nellie” in that film made him an international attraction (I hate the modern use of the word celebrity) with all its pressures, but it certainly helped publicise his autogyro design.  From then on he was in great demand for personal appearances, and travelled the world promoting the film.  In his upstairs study he had a calendar wall-chart pinned up, with all the engagements marked, including the many visits to his hangar and home by clubs, institutions and military personnel; there were usually 200-300 “events” posted every year.  He was never critical of the demands made upon his time, and said that it had been a wonderful life.  The words of the song “My Way” come to my mind!

Before all this, he had enjoyed his RAF flying career, despite the unbelievable and many life-threatening experiences in Bomber Command during WWII, for which I believe he was seriously overlooked for at least one DFC for his pilot skills (and in later life with only an MBE being awarded).  After several years in research and development, examining/testing captured weaponry, and then sorting out the bombing-up problems with the (then new) Canberra jet bomber for operational duties as Armaments Officer on squadron, he was astonished to be told by his superior officer when seeking promotion that there would be little advancement for him in the post-war RAF as he had spent too long in “R&D” and needed to spend some time “at the sharp end”.  He declined to comment that he had spent 2 years with the US Strategic Air Command flying the giant B-36 operationally with an Atom Bomb on board and retired at 47.  This did allow him time then to properly develop his autogyro design with his cousin Geoffrey and, as they say, the rest is history.

I should add at this point that Ken and his cousin also successfully built a flying replica of the Wallbro Monoplane in the ‘70s; the original having been built and flown near Cambridge between 1908 and 1910 by their respective fathers.  This presently resides in the Ken Wallis Hall at Flixton and is much admired by visitors.

Ken’s World Records, his many awards, interest in power boats, cars, his superb engineering skills and inventions, his “girls” (the autogyros he built), other pursuits, and the many extraordinary events in his life are covered in the book (and the abbreviated biography on the Museum websites), so need not be repeated here, but written words could never project the same emotions experienced when meeting Ken in the flesh.  He had quite an impish grin, a deep chuckle, a fairly piercing gaze with head slightly bowed.  I think he would have been quite formidable as a “boss” in his younger years and not likely to have accepted anything but the very best from subordinates.  

Ken will be greatly missed by the Museum members at Flixton.  He was a frequent visitor and generous fundraiser, and a great ambassador.  In addition to the numerous professional institutions who welcomed Ken as a member, and the vast number of clubs and similar bodies who regarded him with great respect and fondness, many ordinary people will also feel a loss in one way or another.  Even a short chat with him left the individual feeling that it was something special, and his warmth made them feel that he would remember them!  Ken was recognised wherever he went.  Admirers would soon gather and he would usually produce a small clipboard from a pocket, to sign and give away autographed postcards of him flying Little Nellie.  I am sure that many a childless adult has asked for a card to give to their “offspring”.

Ken was inspirational, a great role model, and possessed a rare old-world charm plus the  impeccable manners of his age; all without a hint of grandeur.  I am not alone in thinking that he was probably the grandfather figure we would all have liked to have had at some time.   Norfolk was Ken’s home from 1963 and I venture to think he was appreciated by such a large part of its population that he was likely a close second to its most revered inhabitant: Horatio Nelson. 

Goodbye Ken - our local hero and national treasure.  Your likes will not be seen again. 

Ian Hancock


Awards and Achievements:


The Alan Marsh Medal – The Royal Aeronautical Society and The Helicopter Association of Great Britain


The Seagrave Trophy – The Royal Automobile Club and The Royal Aeronautical  Society


The Breguet Trophy – The Aero Club de France and The Royal Aero Club


The Silver Medal – The Royal Aero Club


The Rose Trophy – The Helicopter Club of Great Britain


Honorary Fellowship – Manchester Polytechnic


The Reginald Mitchell Trophy – Stoke on Trent Association of Engineers


The Rose Trophy – The Helicopter Club of Great Britain


The Segrave Trophy – The Royal Automobile Club and The Royal Aeronautical Society


The Salomon Trophy – The Royal Aero Club


The FAI Gold Rotorcraft Medal – Federation Aeronautique Internationale


Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) – For Services To Aviation


Honorary Doctorate of Engineering – University of Birmingham


Honorary Fellowship – Society of Experimental Test Pilots – For Lifetime Achievement As An Aeronautical Engineer, Pioneering The Many Uses Of Autogyros.


Guinness Book of World Records – The Oldest Aviator To Set A World Record 


Special Award – The Air League – For Record-Breaking Autogyro Developments


Sir Barnes Wallis Medal – The Guild of Air Pilots & Air Navigators – For Exceptional Contribution To Aviation Over More Than 50 Years.


Honorary Doctorate – Hofstra University, New York, USA – For Accomplishments In Aviation.


Pilcher Memorial Lecture Medal


Honorary Fellowship – The Institute of Transport Administration


Award of Honour – Guild of Air Pilots & Air Navigators – For Outstanding Lifetime Achievement And Enduring Contribution To Aviation


Silver Cross of St George – This England magazine.


Royal Aero Club – Cowburn & Kay – Old And Bold Trophy.

World Records recognised by The Federation Aeronautique Internationale:




Speed over 3 Kilometres


Distance In Closed Circuit Without Landing


Speed Over 500 Kilometres Closed Circuit


Speed Over 100 Kilometres Closed Circuit


Non-Stop Distance In Straight Line*






Speed Over 15 Kilometres*


Speed Over 100 Kilometres Closed Circuit*


Speed Over 3 Kilometres*


Speed Over 1,000 Kilometres Closed Circuit*


Speed Over 500 Kilometres Closed Circuit*


Distance In Closed Circuit*


Time To Climb To 3,000 Metres


Time To Climb To 3,000 Metres*


Speed over 3 Kilometers* (129 mph)

* Ken Wallis still held these absolute World Records set in both classes of autogyro as at September 2013.

The FAI awarded Diplome de Record in respect of the 34 World Records set by Ken Wallis in two classes of autogyro: Class E3 (any autogyro) and Class 3a (autogyro under 500 Kilos in weight).  The copies of diplomas on display number less than 34 because they are sometimes specific to one Class of autogyro whereas others combine the two Classes within the one diploma.


A short biography of Wing Commander Kenneth Horatio Wallis

MBE, DEng(hc), PhD(hc), CEng, FRAeS, FSETP, FInsTA(hc), RAF (Ret’d).

Ken was born in April 1916 in Ely, and educated at the local Kings School. When only 11, he helped in his father’s cycle and motorcycle business and built his own motorcycles.  From his teens, he went on to design, build and race powerboats quite successfully, progressing then to designing and building a range of sports cars.  He also enjoyed shooting competitively and did very well at that.  In the 1930s, he took flying lessons and joined the RAF when WWII broke out.  Initially flying the Lysander on Army Cooperation duties with 268 Squadron, he was transferred to Bomber Command in 1941 and eventually completed 24 missions over Europe as a pilot of Wellington bombers with 103 Squadron; he then served in Italy with 37 Squadron.  He had several miraculous escapes when his aircraft suffered severe damage but as a very skilful pilot he always made it home. 

In 1943 he dabbled with sailing and acquired an old gaff-rigged Cutter, which he re-rigged in the style of a Bermudan Cutter with new masts and sails.  As petrol was rationed for civilians during the war, Ken converted his father’s Bantam motorbike to electric power.  During much of the late 1940s, Ken revelled in research & development, examining and testing captured enemy armament with the possibility of improving and/or adapting the design for UK adoption.  He also spent time experimenting to find the best warhead to “kill” enemy jet engines in flight such as those powering the German Arado 234 jet bomber; he even adapted a “Petrel” glider to powered flight by using a modified German jet engine starter motor. 

Nothing ever went to waste, and Ken constantly found a use for discarded components from British and German aircraft.  In 1942, he had built the world’s first electric slot-car, race track.  The 3-inch long racing cars had self-built electric motors and the track was on the air-raid black-out boards of his Nissen hut; these cars had front wheel steering.  The next cars were slightly bigger, with motors from an electro-mechanical navigation and bomb-aiming computer extracted from a German Arado 234!  Many hours of racing fun were spent by Ken with colleagues over the years to come but it was not until 1956, when about to go to the U.S., that Ken entrusted a friend to register Patents but this was not followed up.  Scalextric came on the scene in 1957 and has been a fantastic success for the manufacturer but the design is inferior to Ken’s.  His cars and track still survive in perfect working order.

Also in 1942, Ken had acquired components from an early 35mm camera which employed 4cm diameter film spools and could feed un-perforated film giving a larger than standard 35mm format.  Rebuilding it with a new outer body, lens and shutter, plus a coupled split-image rangefinder proved very useful but he had to tolerate the perforations in the picture from the bulk strips of the early film then available.  He went on to design a 16mm cine film camera in 1945 with capacity for 100 shots through a focal plane shutter providing anything from 1,000th of a second, to time exposures without setting the shutter speed in the conventional way.  It was a true “spy” camera and could be worn as a wristwatch, being only  21/2 inches long, with stunning definition for aerial or table-top close-up photography.  He used it in the RAF to investigate airborne bomb “hang-up” problems in aircraft bomb-bays.  He then built a special pin-hole camera and photographed scale models of enemy aircraft to determine the dispersion of fragments from the exploding warhead of anti-aircraft weapons. 

Later, he examined larger format cameras, such as hand-held ex-Luftwaffe infinity examples, and adapted them for aerial photographic roles, including through-the-lens reflex focusing.

In the early 1950s, he occupied armament roles on different RAF stations, including modifying the bombing-up routine and equipment for the new Canberra jet bomber to make it “fit for purpose” when first introduced to the RAF at Binbrook.   Ken’s inventive mind also tackled a number of failing examples of weaponry, such as the 25lb Practice Bomb, which often failed to explode when intended, and the zeroing device on the telescopic sniper sight of the Lee Enfield No. 4 Rifle. 

In 1956, Ken went on a 2-year exchange posting to the U.S. Strategic Air Command flying the gigantic Convair RB-36 with an Atom bomb on board during the Cold War era.  During this time he continued to race powerboats and to exhibit his hand-built and “improved” Rolls-Royce “Long Dog” touring car to great success all over the U.S.  This latter “task” was on the direct orders of General Curtis LeMay (then head of the SAC) who was an avid automobile enthusiast.  When in the U.S., Ken had seen the Bensen B.7 Gyroglider - a similar design to the wartime Hafner Rotachute - and believed that he could develop a powered version so had purchased a pair of McCulloch engines for experimentation back in the UK. 

Ken resumed RAF service as Command Weapons Officer in Fighter Command; in 1961 he was posted to the Armament Division Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment as O/C Tactical Weapons Group.  At one point, he was involved in some of the weapons’ testing of the revolutionary English Electric fighter later known as the Lightning.  Alongside his RAF career, Ken spent spare time on his autogyro invention and, in 1959, experienced his first tethered flight.  With the cancellation of TSR2 and the Fairey Rotodyne, Ken was unhappy with the way things were going in aviation and also saw few prospects in the post-war RAF, so decided to retire in 1964 and turn all his attention to his design.  Wallis Autogyros Limited was formed with his cousin Geoffrey and the rest - as they say - is history! 

Between 1968 and 2002 Ken set 17 World Records in two Classes of autogyro - 34 in all - and many are still held by him, including the speed record of 129 mph. Ken has appeared in several major feature films and countless television documentaries but his most famous was when doubling as James Bond in “You Only Live Twice”.  Here he flew his own autogyro design - dubbed “Little Nellie” in the film - and dramatically dispatched all the enemy helicopters sent up to intercept him by employing a vast range of authentic weaponry.  

Ken’s aircraft (he has 20) have been adapted and employed for many different investigative roles, including aerial surveillance and photography, detecting coastal erosion and damaged underground pipelines, Police/Home Office duties such as searching for buried bodies, also the Loch Ness “monster” and archaeological sites, panoramic photography, trials for the Army Air Corps, plus testing the provision of airborne on-line computer battle imagery to ground stations, and marine deck landings.  Ken continues to protect and reserve his design for what he calls “workhorse” duties and wishes any commercial production to be achieved for these purposes before considering sports and leisure activities for his aircraft.

An interest in aviation in the Wallis family started back in 1908, however, when his father and uncle decided to build a flying machine at their home in Cambridge.  Having visited the Paris Salon exhibition in 1908, and with only motorcycle construction knowledge, the aircraft was built using steel tube so was quite unusual and believed to be the first British aircraft to employ this.  The aircraft also had ailerons for turning so was greatly advanced compared to contemporary designs using the common wing-warping method.  The “Wallbro Monoplane” was completed in 1910 and was first flown on 4th July from a field by the Teversham/Fulbourn crossroads near Cambridge.  A report in the local newspaper stated that it sailed along for several yards, a few feet off the ground and at more than 20mph – before dipping and performing a somersault after the pilot alighted!  Other flights occurred but later in the year a storm demolished the crude hangar where the aircraft was stored and severely damaged it.  

 Wallbro monoplane

In 1973, Ken and his cousin Geoffrey decided to create a flying replica, and Ken first flew the aircraft (G-BFIP) in 1978.  It is now displayed in the Ken Wallis Hall in the Norfolk & Suffolk Aviation Museum at Flixton  where Ken’s entire collection will one day be placed on permanent public view.  Ken has been its President since 1976.

Ken Wallis at home

Ken Wallis at home,just before his 96th birthday in April 2012 - photograph by Ian Hancock

Extracted by Ian Hancock from his biography “The Lives Of Ken Wallis – Engineer And Aviator Extraordinaire”.  ISBN 978-0-9541239-6-3.


To avoid disappointment, please note that the James Bond "Little Nellie" autogyro flown by the late Wing Commander Ken Wallis, and his replica of the 1910 Wallbro Monoplane, were removed today (22 April) by the Wallis family for Probate purposes. They are not likely to return, and his collection of aircraft, lifetime achievements and interests (previously at Reymerston Hall) will not be coming for display in the Ken Wallis Hall at Flixton, as were his original intentions.

360 view of Ken's hangar

 Images of Ken in his hangar

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