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Wing Commander Ken Wallis still flying aged 94

29-Jun-2010 • Bond News

Wing Commander Kenneth Wallis MBE is waving down at me from a blindingly bright blue sky -- writes the Daily Mail.

His RAF tie is blowing out like a windsock in the breeze, his white beard is bobbing up and down and his forehead is gleaming in the sun as he roars at high speed backwards and forwards above his horse paddock in an autogyro called Zeus III that he built himself.

The noise is deafening - a cross between the world's loudest motorbike and a giant lawn mower - as first he flies wide, doing a vast loop round the conker trees.

Then he comes in low, grinning and gurning and taking photos with his 35mm camera.

And finally, rather alarmingly and at about 100mph - 'I can never be sure, I always seem to forget to look at the speedometer' - he does his party piece, a long, low swoop and, oh God, in a 'look-no-hands-or-feet!' moment, he's let go of the controls and is waggling his arms and legs about like a mad thing.
Commander Wallis is 94 years old. He is also limbering up to break his own speed record of 129mph over 3km in one of his amazing homemade flying machines - a bit like teeny helicopters but with twin propellers, one above and one behind.

Or he would be, if only the boring old safety- conscious Civil Aviation Authority hadn't ruined everything by reducing the legal top speed of autogyros to just 70mph.

'Seventy! Can you believe it?' he harrumphs. 'It's ridiculous. Yesterday, I popped out on an errand and was cruising at well over 100mph. Seventy's nothing. And it's not as if I don't know what I'm doing.'

He has a point. He's been flying since 1936 and building autogyros since 1959 at his handsome Georgian mansion in Norfolk.

The drawing room and several bedrooms are bursting with engine parts, wheels, rotor blades, throttle levers and propeller parts. He has held more than 34 world records, and still holds a handful.

There was his 1975 record (now superseded) for the longest flight in an autogyro when he flew the length of Britain - 'I'd have gone further, but we ran out of land'. And he had a crack at the 'altitude in an autogyro' record, but gave up when he reached 18,976ft, 'because I'd run out of sight of land, and pretty much everything else'.

Then, in March 1998, at 81 years and 336 days, he became the oldest pilot to set a world record when he 'accidentally' achieved the fastest climb to 3,000ft - 'I did it in seven minutes 20 seconds and I never bothered trying to improve on that' - and then trumped himself in 2002 with a speed record of 129.1mph.

But there's an awful lot more to Wing Commander Wallis than breaking records.

He is a true 20th-century action hero, a World War II bomber pilot, armaments expert, engineer, inventor (he invented a predecessor to Scalextric in 1942 in his spare time between bombing raids; 'mine was more realistic - it had front wheels which really steered round corners'), marksman, photographer, James Bond stuntman and double (he flew one of his autogyros in the 1967 Bond film You Only Live Twice).

He has won countless awards, medals and honours and has used his autogyros to help police look for missing persons, dead bodies, Lord Lucan and even the Loch Ness Monster.

He is also the most wonderful company, from the moment he emerges from the bushes to one side of his enormous house with a brisk step, a twinkly eye and a very crisp shirt.

'Hello! Hello! You're here! Wonderful. Come through the jungle and I'll show you my girls,' he says, striding off through the rhododendrons to a large concrete hangar, which is home to his 18 autogyros, lined up in perfect order.

'People always ask: "Why so many, Ken?" And I say: "It's a bit like having a harem, they all do the same basic thing, but it all depends what you're in the mood for, whether you want a good meal cooked, or maybe something a bit sexier..."

'This one here's a film star. She was in the 1980 film The Martian Chronicles with Rock Hudson, though of course he didn't fly her. And this is Little Nellie from You Only Live Twice.

'And this is the one I searched for Lord Lucan in when he went missing. But I think we'll take Zeus III out for a spin today - she's one of the noisy ones.'
A tour round Zeus III doesn't take long. She's rather basic-looking and seems to consist of a collection of metal poles, an engine, a fuel tank - 'enough for a couple of hours' - a couple of dials, propellers, rotor blade, steering lever, a foot rest, a saggy mesh seat and a paper list of names taped to the central rod.

'That's my list of 147 intrepid passengers who came up in her with me before European law put a stop to all that.'

Flight preparation takes 30 seconds, after Prudence the Jack Russell has been locked in the house 'so she doesn't get caught in the propellers'.

Commander Wallis simply pushes her out of the hangar onto the gravel - 'she weighs 240lb so she's very portable. You can pop them on a trailer and take them anywhere' - primes her with a quick squirt of oil, swings the rotor blade and hops onboard.

Daredevilry is in the Commander's blood. In 1910, his father, Horatio, and uncle, Percy, sons of a well-to-do Cambridge grocer and tea importer, built, flew (and duly pranged) their own tubular steel monoplane, called the Wallbro. July 4 will be the centenary of their maiden flight and he is keen to mark it with a new world record.

'It was a very advanced plane for its time,' he says. 'Built out of metal. It got off the ground and I remember Father mentioned a bill of £34 for telephone wires.'

He built his first motorbike aged 11 - 'it was one of those you had to run and jump on when it was going' - and soon graduated to boats, cars, planes and autogyros.

After twice failing his RAF medical on the basis of a defective eye ('I had to wear a dreadful black patch over one eye as a child'), in 1939 he bought a book called Medical Fitness For Flying and cheated his way past his third eye test.

He went on to survive 28 bombing missions over Germany, lurching home after one raid with 115 holes in his aircraft, another with a wing flapping off after a collision with a barrage balloon, and a third with the underside of the plane engulfed in flames after an explosion in the bomb bay.
'I was known as Crasher,' he says. 'I went through a lot of aircraft.'

Another time, he jumped at 700ft in a tangle of parachute harness and was nearly knocked out by his own floundering aircraft. His RAF tie now sports the tie pin of the Caterpillar Club.

Members have to have successfully used a parachute to bail out of a disabled plane. Oh yes, and then there was the time he nearly hit the Eiffel Tower.
'Luckily, I looked up just in time. I don't know why, but they never told us to look out for it!'

It's little wonder Health and Safety aren't top of his priorities. Today, his seat belt is a tatty grey across-the-waist affair and there's no helmet, though he says he wears one on longer journeys 'because it keeps the wind out a bit'.

He left the RAF in 1964 and, just when things were quietening down on the work front, his film career took off.

James Bond set designer Ken Adam heard him on the radio talking about how he'd love to do an airborne fight with a helicopter and called him down to Pinewood to meet legendary Bond producer Cubby Broccoli.

'I'd never seen a Bond film, but after a very liquid lunch with Cubby I started up the engine. It made a terrible noise and caused so much dust. I disappeared into a cloud and re-appeared - and I was in a Bond movie. They said: "You're the same shape as Connery, you'll do as his double."

'He's got hairier arms than me, though, which a very eagle-eyed lady in Germany noticed when the film came out, and I had to shave my moustache off, which has not been the same since.'

He flew 81 flights and spent 44 hours in the air dodging bullets from helicopters in the heavily armoured Little Nellie while Connery 'sat in a replica in Pinewood with a fan ruffling his shirt and pretended to be flying'.

'It was hard work and made only about seven minutes of film. And there was no mention of me in the credits, which was a mistake, obviously,' he says. 'But the tours afterwards in American and Australia were great fun.'

He then carried on with what he loved best: working hard and commuting to a research and development job near Rye on the south coast ('It's much quicker to fly down by autogyro than go through the Dartford tunnel').

His late wife, Peggy, an artist and mother of his three children, would paint cheerfully through the noise of countless testflights from the horse paddock.
Ken had no formal engineering training and his approach is a mixture of 'the b****y obvious combined with common sense'. 'Many years ago, I bought a couple of books about propeller design, but I didn't understand what they were talking about, so I did a bit of schoolboy maths and made them myself. I have been ever since.'

Back in 1970, he was called in to join the hunt for the Loch Ness Monster. 'I spent two days in the air with a camera on board, but nothing,' he says.
Then in 1975 there was the call from the police to come and help look for Lord Lucan.

'They thought he might have committed suicide in Newhaven, so I drove down with the autogyro on a trailer and had a good look, but he wasn't there - he'd nipped off to France and on to Argentina or somewhere.'

Today, the weather conditions seem perfect for flying - light breeze, lovely sunny day - but Ken's having none of it. 'Ooh no! I much prefer a strong wind. The worst thing is pouring rain, but I've flown through a 120-knot hurricane in Brazil, so there's no limit for wind as far as I'm concerned.' He still flies every other day - 'I should go b****y mad if I couldn't fly any more' - sometimes long distances, or just into the village.

He gives talks, lectures and tours round his workshops. 'I can't be bothered with a radio and all that admin, so I just go with a map on my lap and avoid the built-up areas.'

And what of his advancing years? As he hauls the 240lb Zeus III out of her hangar, twirls the propeller with one hand and springs into the seat, it's impossible to believe he's 94.

'I try not to take any notice. So long as I'm busy and able, and can still turn the propeller to start the engine, why should I think about numbers?'
What is worrying him right now is the Civil Aviation Authority.

'They're so incredibly negative. Quite frankly, you get fed up of banging your head against the wall. I might just go to France to break the record, or maybe America. I'm sure they'd be happy to have me. But it's a shame, because the UK used to be a place to come to get things done.'

Is he confident he can break his own record? 'Of course I can. I've done 136mph in this creaky old thing, so I'm aiming for at least 140mph or 150mph. The thing about world records is you can always do better.'

And with that, he fastens his seat belt, fires up Zeus III and, with an ear-splitting roar, rattles across the horse paddock.

A few hours with Wing Commander Wallis is a special treat, but it isn't nearly enough. He is a truly extraordinary man who has done so much and has so many more plans - his diary is crammed. But the image of him roaring across his paddock, scattering dust and leaves and birds, and hurtling into the sky in his amazing flying machine, will stay with me for ever.

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