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.
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,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.
Copies are available from the Museum shop at £17.50 - signed by Ken and Ian.
Limited Edition “Flown (by Ken) and Signed” copies are £22.50 including UK post.
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