British aviation engineer, designer of the R 100 airship, the Wellington bomber, bouncing bombs, and swing-wing aircraft. He was knighted in 1968.
Born in Ripley, Derbyshire, the son of a doctor, Wallis was apprenticed with the Thames Engineering Company (1904–08). In 1913 he joined the firm of Vickers to work on the design of airships and was responsible for the construction of the R 100, completed in 1930 as a rival to the government-backed R 101. Although the R 100 crossed the Atlantic without difficulty and was faster than the R 101, the crash of its rival on its test flight with the loss of forty-eight lives meant the end of the airship as a commercial proposition. Consequently, in 1930, Wallis, as chief designer of structures at Vickers, turned his attention to the design of military aircraft. His first plane was the revolutionary Wellesley, with its novel goedetic structure. Although this was turned down by the Air Ministry, the same lattice structure was incorporated in Wallis's Wellington bomber, one of the most successful British bombers of the war. Wallis is, however, best known for his wartime work, chronicled in the book (1951) and film (1955), The Dam Busters. Normal bombing, he argued, would have little impact on Germany's dispersed industrial capacity. It would therefore be sensible to aim at an essential target, such as a dam, that could not be dispersed. This required more powerful and sophisticated bombs than were then available and Wallis set about designing bombs that would destroy such substantial structures as the Möhne and Eder dams. The result was the ten-ton bouncing bombs, which successfully destroyed the Ruhr dams in 1943.
Wallis next attracted attention with his idea of swing-wing variable-geometry aircraft, capable of flying supersonic and subsonic speeds efficiently at both high and low altitudes. Vickers backed the project and in the 1950s an experimental version of Wallis's design, the Swallow, was built. When the British government lost interest in the project, Wallis's plans were abandoned. Some of his ideas were, however, incorporated in several other planes, notably the US fighter, the F 111. When Wallis was in his nineties, he was working on plans for a ‘square’ plane capable of flying several times faster than the speed of sound with a range of 10 000 miles. A model was made by BAC and although wind-tunnel tests looked promising, Wallis's last design remained unexploited.
Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).