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1 SEPTEMBER 2013
WING COMMANDER KEN WALLIS (1916-2013)

By: Anders Frejdh
Published:
2013-09-07
FSWL are saddened to report that Ken Wallis the amazingly talented 'superman' who once portrayed James Bond on film (for Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice 1967), has passed away at the age of 97. Our thoughts are with his family.

Ken Wallis long-time friend and FSWL contributor Ian Hancock remembers the hero:

"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

Editor's note:
In July 2010, the documentary Born to Bond was released on DVD to commemorate the extraordinary life of Ken Wallis.

Photo above:
Wing Commander Ken Wallis outside his home in April 2012. © Ian Hancock. All rights reserved.

For more information about Ken Wallis amazing career, check out the website dedicated to him:
www.kenwallisautogyro.com
#in_memoriam

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Managing Editor: Anders Frejdh