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Wing Commander Ken Wallis has quietly passed away, aged 97

It was with some sadness that I misunderstood a recent headline along the lines of Autogyro legend Ken Wallis hangs up wings at 97, and took the wording to be literal, and thought it merely meant that at 97, he had given up flying.

However, this was not the case as I read on, and realised I was reading his obituary.

I can’t help but feel that he will have passed away with at least some disappointment, as the autogyro has never become widely accepted or become anything more than a novelty in modern aviation.

Despite its simplicity and reliability, and – for something that flies and carries passengers – and relative safety, it has been sidelined by more attractive and costly alternatives. Even when things do go wrong, the resultant prangs are often less severe than would be the case with a conventional aircraft, a fact attested to by Wallis’s own record, as he did manage to make unplanned flights into the ground, and as I recall, blamed his own abilities rather than any failure on the part of his aircraft.

I wonder if the little autogyro has been a victim of its own simplicity – of no interest to large companies and corporations, or those chasing military budgets and funding – simply because any developments based on the device would not attract millions, or billions, of handouts, funding, and investment.

Wing Commander Ken Wallis, who soared to international fame at the controls of James Bond’s Little Nellie, has died at the age of 97.

A former RAF Wellington bomber pilot, he set the 3 km speed record for autogyros (207.7 kmh), and probably became best known to the general public as the pilot of Little Nellie, 007’s autogyro in You Only Live Twice, of which he commented  “I think it was a good film. People say it must have been fun to film but it was 85 flights and 46 hours in the air to make seven minutes on screen.” Yes, it’s true, neither James Bond nor Sean Connery was at the controls for those memorable scenes where the brave little autogyro took down Blofeld’s big bad helicopters as they tried to kill our hero.

Born on April 16, 1916 in Ely, Cambridgeshire. By age 11, he started building his first motorbike in the garden shed, then graduated to a homebuilt Flying Flea. He started RAF duties at the controls of the Westland Lysander, and moved on to the Vickers Wellington. During the Cold War he was seconded to the US Air Force for two years, where he flew nuclear-armed Convair B-36 Peacemakers. However, it seems it was his interest in the Fairey RotoDyne and Bensen B-7 “Gyro-Glider” ultimately led him to design an autogyro rotor head that allowed accurate blade pitch control without the risk of the aircraft cutting off its own tail.

That design is probably why I see a number of stories that wrongly credit Wallis as the inventor of the autogyro, but even at 97, he’s still not old enough to carry off that distinction. That belongs to Juan de la Cierva y Codorníu, 1st Count of De La Cierva (born September 21,1895). A Spanish civil engineer, pilot, and aeronautical engineer who came up with his single rotor Autogiro 1920, although he had to develop the articulated rotor before it really worked properly, which resulted in the world’s first successful flight of a stable rotary-wing aircraft, his C.4 prototype, in 1923.

The world is a slightly emptier place with his passing, as I consider him to be one of the last true celebrities (unlike the disposable rubbish promoted on TV on a weekly basis.)

Wing Commander Kenneth Horatio Wallis MBE, DEng, CEng, FRAeS, FSETP, PhD, RAF (Ret’d) died peacefully in his sleep on September 1 2013.

This was him two years ago, still getting into the air at 95 – and he still can’t resist showing how the thing ‘flies itself’ as he takes both his hand and feet off the controls:

He wasn’t just clever with autogyros:

No, I’m not leaving this out:


September 8, 2013 - Posted by | Aviation | , ,

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