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Commander Ken Wallis (1916-2013)

3rd September 2013

Inventor and pilot Commander Ken Wallis, famous for his autogyro Little Nellie, has died aged 97

MI6 logo By MI6 Staff
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Commander Ken Wallis, known the world over to James Bond fans as the inventor and pilot of the auto-gyro seen in the 1967 adventure "You Only Live Twice" as Little Nellie, has died at the age of 97.

Wing Commander Kenneth Horatio Wallis MBE, DEng (hc), CEng, FRAeS, FSETP, PhD (hc), RAF (Ret'd), was a leading exponent on autogyros and has held, and in some cases still holds, 34 records related to them.
MI6 Interview with Commander Ken Wallis


Above: Commander Ken Wallis

Born on 26th April 1916 ain Ely, Cambridgeshire, Wallis' interest in mechanics began at age 11 when he started to build his own motorcycle. At age 20, after witnessing a demonstration by Henri Mignet of his 'Flying Flea' aircraft, and armed with Mignet's book, Wallis started to build his own but later abandoned the project due to a spate of deaths and bad publicity about the craft. After his first solo flight in 1937, his interests also turned to power boating, and he was active in the sport up until 1957 when he won the 90km long Missouri Marathon event.

As the world turned towards world war again, Wallis tried to enlist in the RAF but was rejected due to a defect in his right eye. Unperturbed, he obtained a private flying license after his GP signed off on the documents, and earned his A License for dual and solo flying in a record 12 hours. After another unsuccessful attempt to join the RAF's new Short Service Commission Scheme in 1938, but was called up by RAF Uxbridge a year later and got through the eye test. "I did the first line with my good eye then they covered it up and asked me to read the bottom line with my bad eye, without them realising I just turned my head slightly so I could again see with my good eye – I passed it with Above Average Eye Sight," Wallis recalled recently.

During World War II, Wallis started with Westland Lysander patrols and was then transferred to RAF Bomber Command, flying Wellingtons near Grimsby. He went on to serve in Italy and on secondment to US Strategic Air Command where he flew the Convair B-36. Wallis retired from the RAF in 1964, having spent the post-war years involved in R&D.

But it is his work as inventor and pilot of autogyros for which Wallis is best known to Bond fans around the world. He developed the craft for "reconnaissance, research & development, surveillance and military purposes" but was weary of other building their own kits from plans (after his experience with the 'Flying Flea'), insisting that although the design is simple, they had to be built to proper standard. Wallis' signature contribution his autogyro was the offset gimbal rotor head. Wallis produced the craft under the company Wallis Autogyros Ltd run by his cousin in Cambridge.

Q-Branch's 'Little Nellie' was in fact model WA-116 from Wallis' stable of autogyros. For the film, Little Nellie was kitted out with a range of armourments by MI6's Q-Branch, so that Bond could survey the volcanic islands of Japan in safety. She was accompanied by her "dad", Q himself, who demonstrated some of the modifications to 007. Such modifications included twin forward-facing machine guns, two 1.75" rockets, smaller heat seeking missiles and aerial mines. Nellie is equipped with short-range radio so that the pilot can communicate with her "dad" at all times, and a camera broadcasts a pilot's view so that he can better be aided by the ground-staff. She is transported to Japan in several packing cases and assembled by able bodies provided by the Japanese secret service - overseen by Q of course.

Whilst the first unit was completing scenes at Kagoshima Seaport and Kobe Docks (foot chase), Himeji Castle (ninja training school) and the Hotel New Otani in Chiyoda-Ku (Osato Chemicals exteriors), Commander Ken Wallis began filming with Little Nellie on location in Japan. The scenes were initially shot in Miyazaki, first with takes of the gyrocopter, with more than 85 take-offs, 5 hours of flight and Wallis nearly crashing onto the camera several times The long stunt sequence was under the supervision of second unit director Peter Hunt and aerial cameraman Johnny Jordan, who choreographed the fight between Little Nellie and her attackers. Jordan suffered a terrible accident when a Hillier flew too close and clipped his Alouette’s underside skis with its rotors. He was immediately rushed to a hospital in nearby Ebino where surgeons struggled to save his almost-severed foot. Three months later in London, Jordan’s leg had to be amputated. With only establishing shots in the can and the team demoralized, the second unit headed back to London and rescheduled the aerial battle for December in Torremolinos, Spain, with a new French stunt crew and replacement cameraman Tony Brown whilst Wallis resumed flights with Little Nellie to complete the sequence.


Above: Commander Ken Wallis at the opening of Bond In Motion at Beaulieu last year.

Along with 007 duty, Wallis provided camera footage from onboard his autogyro whilst searching for the Loch Ness Monster in 1970, the hunt for Lord Lucan in 1964, and shot aerial footage for Into The Wind between 2006 and 2009 for the documentary's director Steven Hatton.

Wallis was awarded an MBE in 1996, and a long over-due campaign medal for his 28 bomber missions over Germany during WWII in July 2013. Last October, he was given a lifetime contribution to aerospace award by the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators. He was also the President of the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum, and Patron of the Wolf Preservation Foundation.

Commander Ken Wallis died aged 97 on Sunday 1st September 2013 in the village of Reymerston in Norfolk, England. His daughter Vicky said her father passed away after "a long and successful life doing what he wanted".

"Some of the most exciting moments you don’t see in the film – taking off and landing on a cliff edge. There was hardly any flat area, it was all rugged – when you braked, the aircraft would slide and slither. I did 7 take-offs and landings in one day. I would fly up to four or five thousand feet, take the shoots and comeback down again, each time thinking: ‘I’ve still got Little Nellie’. Then they would say there was a hair in number two camera can you do it again! But that’s filmmaking." - Commander Ken Wallis talking to MI6 Confidential magazine in issue #6.


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