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Who is Wally Funk?

Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk is an American aviator, commercial astronaut, and Goodwill Ambassador. She was the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, the first female civilian flight instructor at Fort Sill, Okla., and the first female Federal Aviation Agency inspector, as well as one of the Mercury 13.

Funk became the oldest person to go to space, breaking a 23-year record held by John Glenn, setting this record on Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft during its July 20, 2021, suborbital flight. She is the only member of the Mercury 13 group to have travelled to space.

Funk was born in Las Vegas, N.M., and grew up in Taos, N.M. Her parents owned a variety store. The family had a collection of artwork from artists at the Taos art colony, as the artists would trade artwork to pay off their debt at the store.

As a child, Funk was captivated by planes. When she was a one-year-old, her parents took her to an airport near where they lived in New Mexico and she got up close to a Douglas DC-3, an early airliner. “I go right to the wheel and I try to turn the nut,” she says. “Mother said: ‘She’s going to fly.'”

She became interested in mechanics and built model airplanes and ships. By the time she was seven, she was making planes from balsa wood. At nine, she had her first flying lesson.

Wally Funk was the first female FAA inspector and first female NTSB air safety investigator. The 82-year-old pilot will now be part of the first crew on New Shepard, and the oldest person ever to fly to space. (NASA photograph)

Funk was also an accomplished outdoorswoman, spending time riding her bike or her horse, skiing, hunting and fishing. At the age of 14, she became an expert marksman, receiving the Distinguished Rifleman’s Award. The National Rifle Association sent her incredible shooting results to the president, Dwight Eisenhower, and he wrote back to her. At the same time she represented the southwestern United States as Top Female Skier, Slalom and Downhill races in United States competition.

As a high school student, Funk wanted to take courses such as mechanical drawing and auto mechanics, but because she was a girl, she was permitted to take only courses such as home economics. Frustrated, Funk left high school early at the age of 16 and entered Stephens College in Columbia, Mo. Funk became a member of the “Flying Susies” and rated first in her class of 24 fliers. She graduated in 1958 with her pilot’s license and an Associate of Arts degree.

Funk moved on to complete a Bachelor of Science degree in Secondary Education at Oklahoma State University, drawn there primarily by their famous “Flying Aggies” program. While at OSU, Funk earned a large number of aviation instrumentation and instruction ratings, including her Commercial, Single-engine Land, Multi-engine Land, Single-engine Sea, Instrument, Flight Instructor’s, and all Ground Instructor’s ratings. Funk was elected as an officer of the “Flying Aggies” and flew for them in the International Collegiate Air Meets. She received the “Outstanding Female Pilot” trophy, the “Flying Aggie Top Pilot” and the “Alfred Alder Memorial Trophy” two years in succession.

In 1964, her work in aviation was recognized when she became the youngest woman in the history of Stephen’s College to receive the Alumna Achievement Award.

At 20 years old, Funk became a professional aviator. Her first job was at Fort Sill, Okla., as a Civilian Flight Instructor of noncommissioned and commissioned officers of the United States Army. Funk was the first female flight instructor at a U.S. military base. In the fall of 1961, she accepted a job as a Certified Flight Instructor, Charter, and Chief Pilot with an aviation company in Hawthorne, Calif.

Funk earned her Airline Transport Rating in 1968, the 58th woman in the United States to do so. She applied to three commercial airlines but, like other qualified female pilots, was turned away because of her gender.

In 1971, Funk earned the rating of flight inspector from the Federal Aviation Administration, becoming the first woman to complete the FAA’s General Aviation Operations Inspector Academy course, which includes Pilot Certification and Flight Testing procedures, handling accidents, and violations. She worked for four years with the FAA as a field examiner, the first woman to do so. In 1973 she was promoted to FAA SWAP (Systems Worthiness Analysis Program) as a specialist, the first woman in the United States to hold this position. In late November 1973, Wally again entered the FAA Academy to take courses involving air-taxi, charter, and aviation rental businesses.

In 1974, Funk was hired by the National Transportation Safety Board as its first female Air Safety Investigator. Funk investigated 450 accidents, ranging from a probable mob hit to a fatal crash at a mortuary. She made the discovery that people who die in small-plane crashes often have their jewelry, shoes, and clothes stripped off by the impact.

Concurrently, Funk participated in many air races. She placed 8th in the Powder Puff Derby’s 25th Annual Race, 6th in the Pacific Air Race, and 8th in the Palms to Pines Air Race. On Aug. 16, 1975, she placed second in the Palms to Pines All Women Air Race from Santa Monica, Calif., to Independence, Or. On Oct. 4, 1975, flying her red and white Citabria, Wally won the Pacific Air Race from San Diego to Santa Rosa, Calif., against 80 participating competitors.

Funk retired from her post as an Air Safety Investigator in 1985 after serving for 11 years. Funk was then appointed an FAA Safety Counselor and became a renowned pilot trainer and speaker on aviation safety. In 1986, she was the key speaker for the U.S. at The World Aviation Education and Safety Congress. In 1987, Funk was appointed Chief Pilot at Emery Aviation College, Greeley, Colorado, overseeing the entire flight programs for 100 students from Private to Multi-engine flight Instructor and Helicopter ratings.

Funk has been chief pilot for five aviation schools across the country. To date, as a professional Flight Instructor she has soloed more than 700 students and put through 3,000 Private, Commercial, Multi-engine, Seaplane, Glider, Instrument, CFI, Al, and Air Transport Pilots.
 

Members of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs, also known as the “Mercury 13”), these seven women who once aspired to fly into space stand outside Launch Pad 39B near the Space Shuttle Discovery in this photograph from 1995. The so-called Mercury 13 was a group of women who trained to become astronauts for America’s first human spaceflight program in the early 1960s. Although FLATs was never an official NASA program, the commitment of these women paved the way for others who followed. Visiting the space center as invited guests of STS-63 Pilot Eileen Collins, the first female shuttle pilot and later the first female shuttle commander, are (from left): Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. (NASA photograph)

 

Space career

Mercury 13
In February 1961, Funk volunteered for the “Women in Space” Program. The program was run by William Randolph Lovelace, although it lacked official government sponsorship. Funk contacted Lovelace, detailing her experience and achievements. Despite being younger than the recruiting age range of 25-40, Funk was invited to take part. Twenty-five women were invited, 19 enrolled, and 13 graduated, including Funk, who at 21 was the youngest. On some tests, she scored better than John Glenn.The media dubbed the group the “Mercury 13,” a reference to the Mercury 7.

Like the other participants in the program, Funk was put through rigorous physical and mental testing. In one test, volunteers were placed in sensory deprivation tanks. Funk was in the tank, without hallucinating, for 10 hours and 35 minutes, a record. She passed her tests and was qualified to go into space. Her score was the third best in the Mercury 13 program. Despite this, the program was canceled before the women were to undergo their last test.

After the Mercury 13 program was cancelled, Funk became a Goodwill Ambassador.
 
Later career
Funk continued to dream of going to space. When NASA finally began accepting women in the late 1970s, Funk applied three times. Despite her impressive credentials, she was turned down for not having an engineering degree or a background as a test pilot, though John Glenn also lacked such a degree.

In 1995, Lt. Col. Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot a Space Shuttle into space; Funk was too old to qualify to become a Space Shuttle pilot by the time Collins became one. Funk and six other members of the Mercury 13 were invited guests of Collins at the launch, and NASA gave them a behind-the-scenes VIP tour of the Kennedy Space Center complex.

In 2012, she put money down to be one of the first people to fly into space via Virgin Galactic. The money for the flight came from Funk’s own book and film royalties and family money.

In July 2020 Funk published a memoir, Higher Faster Longer — My Life in Aviation and My Quest for Space Flight with author Loretta Hall.

On July 1, 2021, Blue Origin announced Funk would fly on the first New Shepard flight with passengers, one of four on the flight, including Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, and 17-year-old Oliver Daemen from the Netherlands, who became the youngest ever astronaut after the flight of July 20, 2021.

Funk currently lives in Grapevine, Texas, according to this Dallas Morning News article: Five things to know about Grapevine’s Wally Funk, who will fly into space with Jeff Bezos on Tuesday. She enjoys sports and restoring antique automobiles, with a collection that includes a 1951 Hooper Silver Wraith.

She has more than 18,600 flight hours and as of June 2019 still flew each Saturday as an instructor.
 
 
 

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