After 56 years of flight, pilot yearns to go into space

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Wally Funk. Courtesy of The Ninety-Nines, Inc.

Wally Funk. Courtesy of The Ninety-Nines, Inc.

When pilot Wally Funk was five years old, she tried to fly by jumping off her family’s barn in the Superman costume her parents gave her for her birthday. That short flight ended in the hay, but she did not give up. She soloed at 16 and in her 56 year career has flown 18,600 hours and has trained over 2,000 pilots.

She made history three times as a female: the first civilian flight instructor at Fort Sill, Okla.; the first Federal Aviation Agency inspector; and the first National Transportation Safety Board air-crash investigator. Going into space is the only goal that remains on her to-do list.

Funk spoke April 25 to the Happy Warriors, a group of mainly World War II veterans, who meet every fourth Friday at Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas. She told them stories about growing up in Taos, New Mexico and about her quest to become an astronaut.

“My father had a business and my mom was too busy with social engagements, so I did all the things the (local Indian) kids did: shooting guns, riding horses – all the fun stuff at five and six years of age,” Funk said. “The Spirit of the Taos Mountain gave me the knowledge to know what to do – how to fix a tractor, a Model T when I was 10 – and I have had a wonderful, fabulous life. The Taos Indians are fantastic in the way they teach their kids and I was just one of their kids.”

She said she her parents let her do just about anything she wanted to do.

“I had great, forward thinking parents,” Funk said. “I was taught early to have no fear – to deal with whatever came up in my life and fix it. And I did. I’m impulsive. I’m spontaneous. I’m very practical. I’m bold. I’m always on time. I’m precise. I’m responsible. I’m a risk-taker – not to the point I would ever lose my life or hurt anybody – but I’ve done a lot of cockamamie things in the air. I march to my own drummer and that’s what keeps me going.”

She must have gotten her courage and love of flying from her mother who also dreamed of becoming a pilot. Funk said in the early 1920’s a barnstormer landed at her mother’s school in Illinois.

“She told the pilot she wanted to fly,” Funk said. “He said, ‘It will be a dollar a minute.’ She went back to school and came back with $10. She got her 10 minutes. That pilot did loops and rolls. She was elated running home to tell her father, ‘I want to be a pilot.’ In those days in Illinois, people were very stern. Her father looked at her and said, ‘You will never fly. Those girls wear britches.’ He was okay by the time I started to fly at Stephens College.”

She said when she became a pilot and she was teaching, the word astronaut had not come into existence.

“I had gone to the head of the class, so to speak, in aviation and teaching, so when the astronaut program came up and Jerrie Cobb asked me if I wanted to be with the program, I said, ‘Yes! Get me up there. You write to Dr. Loveless (Dr. William Randolph “Randy” Lovelace II).’”

She was accepted in 1961 and volunteered to be a part of the Women in Space Program as one of 25 women in the Mercury 13 Program.

“There were 100-and-something guys who took the test,” Funk said. “Seven made it. There were 25 girls that took the same tests, and 13 made it. They tested every part of my body possible. They weren’t sure what was going to happen to the nose, the ears, or the tongue in space. Nobody had an idea what space was going to do to our body. They strapped me in a dentist chair and injected 10 degree water – below freezing – in my ear for 30 seconds. You cannot imagine the tests they made up to do to us.”

Thirty minutes later, they brought her in and injected the freezing liquid into her other ear. She said the women’s tests were harder, faster and longer than the men’s.

“Our bodies could withstand more than the guy’s did.”

“That was 1961, but nobody knew anything about us until 1995 when “Dateline” came out with the story,” Funk said.

The women competed toe-to-toe with John Glenn and the other men, but in the end it was politics, not pilot error, that kept them grounded.

“Eisenhower had put into a record of some sort that only military men could be picked,” Funk said. “Many of the Mercury 13 girls were upset about it, but I knew I had to go on. I knew I would go into space one day.”

She is still waiting.

In 2005 she paid $20,000 to train with Russian cosmonauts at Gagarin Astronaut Training Center 20 miles northeast of Moscow. There she experienced weightlessness aboard an Ilyushin 76 cargo plane. The plane went to 35,000 feet and then nosedived to 10,000 feet to create weightlessness called Parabolic flying. She passed all the same test as the cosmonauts, but she is still waiting to go into space.

Funk is on the list to fly on Sir Richard Branson’s space vehicle.

“But I might not get that chance,” Funk said. “My number is over 100, and he can only take six people at a time.”

Funk expressed regret at not getting a degree in engineering.

“If I had gotten an engineering degree, I would have been on with NASA very early,” she said. “I’ve known all the girls that have gone up, and I’ve been at all the launches. Eileen Collins is one of my very best friends.”

Funk lectures around the country encouraging school systems to make the STEM Program – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – part of their curriculum.

Today, all of her students are teenagers who want to go into the military or be airline pilots.

“They know exactly where they want to go, so I’m helping them get there,” Funk said.

She flies out of Northwest Regional Airport.

Did you know?

 Wally Funk invented the Wally Stick when she was with the FAA NTSB. She investigated about 450 accidents in her career, and she said there were too many accidents where props had broken off. She used the Wally Stick to test propellers. The front of the propeller should have a ping to it, and the back should have a thud when struck with the stick. If there is a dull thud at the front of the prop, it is cracked.