Wally Funk is a trailblazing American aviator who has many firsts to her name including the first female civilian flight instructor at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, and the first female Federal Aviation Agency inspector. She broke astronaut training records in the 1960s when she became the youngest member of the “Mercury 13,” a group of 13 women privately tested and trained by a team of aviation medical experts for NASA’s astronaut program. In July 2021, the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, selected Wally Funk to accompany him on a suborbital trip on July 20, 2021. Wally Funk has experience of 19,600 hours of flight time, and she has taught more than 3,000 people to fly. She has also put through thousands of Private, Commercial, Multi-engine, Seaplane, Glider, Instrument, CFI, Al and Air Transport Pilots.
Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk Los Angeles Times was born on Wednesday, February 1, 1939 (age 82 years; as of 2021), in Las Vegas, New Mexico, United States. She grew up in Taos, a town in New Mexico, where she did her schooling, and where her parents ran a chain of shops. According to Funk, when she was growing up, her mother came to know that her daughter was a tomboy who’d not bake something out of a Betty Crocker cookbook, and who’d rather ride horses and compete in marksmanship contests. According to Funk, while growing up, she was so fascinated by flying that she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t fascinated by flying, and by the age of seven, she had started making planes from balsa wood.
Although her parents expected her to be at home, washed, and wearing a dress every evening for dinner, they always encouraged her outdoor and adventurous activities. According to Funk, it was the encouragement of her parents that made her a confident girl who could do anything she wanted. Funk says,
I did everything that people didn’t expect a girl to do. There was nothing I couldn’t do.”
When I was sent to Stephens College aviation program, I hadn’t even graduated from High School yet. They sent me right into college and right into flying.”
While she was studying at Stephen’s College, in Columbia, Missouri, her adviser called up her mother and said,
Mrs. Funk, your daughter’s not doing too well in her subjects. Do you have an airport? You get her out there and start her flying.”
In 1958, Wally Funk graduated with an Associate of Arts degree and her pilot’s license from Stephen’s College and rated first in her class of 24 flyers. Ninety-Nines Later, she attended Oklahoma State University, where she received a Bachelor of Science degree in Secondary Education and earned her Commercial, Single-engine Land, Multi-engine Land, Single-engine Sea, Instrument, and Flight lnstructor’s and all Ground Instructor’s ratings. Ninety-Nines According to Funk, she attended OSU because she was drawn primarily by their famous “Flying Aggies” program. The Guardian In an interview, while talking about this, she said,
As a Flying Aggie, I could do all the manoeuvres as well as the boys, if not better.”
While attending Oklahoma State University (OSU) she was elected as an officer of the famous “Flying Aggies,” and she flew for them in the International Collegiate Air Meets.
Height (approx.): 5′ 7″
Hair Color: Gray
Eye Color: Hazel Brown
Parents & Siblings
Wally Funk’s father was the owner of a five-and-ten store in Taos, New Mexico, and her mother was an art enthusiast. According to Funk, her mother also desired to fly as a young girl, but her father was skeptical about these dreams as at that time, girls were not even allowed to wear britches. Funk says,
My mother passed the flying gene down to me. I was given the gift of great confidence and born with the ability to fly.”
Husband & Marital Status
I am married to airplanes.”
At the age of 21, Wally Funk became a professional aviator, when she joined Fort Sill, Oklahoma as a Civilian Flight Instructor of noncommissioned and commissioned officers of the United States Army. Reportedly, to get her job at Ft. Sill, she waltzed into the local airfield office and asked,
Does anybody need a flight instructor?”
In the fall of 1961, she joined an aviation company in Hawthorne, California, where she worked as a Certified Flight Instructor, Charter, and Chief Pilot. In 1970, Wally Funk earned the Commercial Glider Rating, and following this, she taught five Aeronautical Science classes at Redondo High School in California; Sacramento’s Educational Board recognized Wally’s work for giving high school students a head start and interest in aviation. In 1971, she successfully completed the FAA General Aviation Operations Inspector Academy course, making her the first woman to do so; the course included Pilot Certification and Flight Testing procedures, handling accidents and violations.
In 1973, Wally was promoted as a specialist to FAA SWAP (Systems Worthiness Analysis Program), making her the first woman in the United States to hold this position. Ninety-Nines In late November 1973, Wally returned to the FAA Academy, where she took courses involving air-taxi, charter, and aviation rental businesses. After completing this course, she traveled to Arizona, Nevada, and California to inspect flight schools and air taxi operations. On December 9, 1974, Wally Funk started working as Air Safety Investigator at the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, D.C.; Wally was their first female Investigator. During her stay in Washington, Wally also attended two schools for field investigators so that she could learn the many elements contributing to airplane accidents and how to investigate them.
Space Career – Mercury 13
On August 29, 1960, Wally Funk came across a story published by Life magazine that changed her life forever. The article entitled ‘A Lady Proves She’s Fit for Space Flight’ described the achievements of aviator Geraldyn ‘Jerrie’ Cobb, who had just completed a series of terrifying endurance tests designed to test potential astronauts; it promoted Wally Funk to pass these tests and go into space. Following this, Funk wrote letters to Cobb and Dr. William Randolph Lovelace, the man who devised the trials, registering her interest in passing these tests and going into space. Soon, the 22-year-old Wally Funk was on her way to Albuquerque to participate in the Woman in Space Program, where she underwent five and a half days of rigorous tasks and intrusive examinations that included ingesting radioactive material and having icy water poured into her ears, equaling the tests taken on by the Mercury 7, the male astronauts who ended up on NASA’s first successful human space mission.
Wally Funk passed these tests successfully, joining Cobb and 11 other successful participants; Wally Funk was the third-best in the Mercury 13 program. Although the Mercury 13 had proven they could endure extreme physical punishment, the program was scrapped after its private funding was pulled. Moreover, several prominent NASA figures testified against the idea of female astronauts on the pretext that it was “against the natural order.” None of the Mercury 13 ever made it into space.
Wally Funk has competed in several women’s air races from coast to coast; she was 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 August 16, 1975, Wally stood second in the Palms to Pines All Women Air Race from Santa Monica, California to Independence, Oregon. On October 4, 1975, she won the Pacific Air Race from San Diego, California to Santa Rosa, California against 80 participating competitors; she achieved this feat while flying her red and white Citabria.
Appearances on Television and Radio
Wally Funk has made appearances on numerous television and radio programs. She has also spoken to more than 50 professional organizations. In November 1973, Wally was interviewed on the “Ad Lib” television program “What Will The Women Be Doing In The Year 2000?” In the same year, she was interviewed on the “Mike Douglas Television Show.” In the fall of 1975, Wally was interviewed on “Salute of Women In Aviation,” a Gene Burke’s television program. In February 1995, NBC’s “Dateline” featured ten of the original thirteen female astronaut candidates including Wally Funk.
Wally Funk has been featured in various magazines such as ‘Life,’ ‘Town and Country,’ and ‘Ms Magazine.’ She has appeared on the front cover of the ‘Oklahoma State Alumnus’ magazine, ‘Aviation News Illustrated.’ She has also been featured in ‘Women in Aeronautics’ by Charles Paul May; ‘Ladybirds II The Continuing Story of American Women in Aviation’ by Henry M. Holden and Captain Lori Griffith; ‘Woman into Space,’ ‘The Jerrie Cobb Story,’ ‘Amelia Earhart’s Daughters,’ ‘Illustrated Encyclopedia of Aviation in Space,’ and ‘Aerospace Education.’ In 1969, she was featured in eight European and South African magazines.
In Popular Media
Wally Funk’s place in the history of the space program has been acknowledged in many books and movies including Martha Ackmann’s 2003 history The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight and the Netflix documentary Mercury 13. In March 2019, Wally’s friend Sue Nelson published a biography, Wally Funk’s Race for Space; it was published by the Chicago Review Press.
Flying into Space with Jeff Bezos
In July 2021, Wally Funk, after a half-century of waiting, finally got her time amongst the stars, when she was selected by the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, to accompany him on a suborbital trip on July 20, 2021, making her the oldest person to fly into space. On July 1, 2021, Jeff Bezos took to Instagram to announce that Funk will be part of a four-person crew set to be launched into space by Blue Origin. While reacting to this, Wally Funk said,
I can’t tell people that are watching how fabulous I feel to be picked by Blue Origin to go on this trip.”
On July 20, 2021, 82 years old Wally Funk became the oldest person to make a successful journey into space, when Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket soared from remote West Texas, accompanying her with three fellow passengers Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos, and an 18-year-old physics student named Oliver Daemen. Mr. Bezos chose the date to celebrate the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Blue Origin’s flight lasted around 10 minutes from launch to capsule touchdown in the desert. The flight traversed a height of 107 km compared to the 86 km height by Branson’s Virgin Galactic that lasted about 90 minutes from its launch to touchdown. Elon Musk’s SpaceX promises to visualize the earth from a height of 300 km, and it would last about three to four days from its launch to landing.
Awards & Achievements
- When Wally Funk was 14, she received a letter of appreciation from President Dwight Eisenhower, after the National Rifle Association sent her incredible shooting results to the president. The Guardian
- In 1964, she received the Alumna Achievement Award, becoming the youngest woman in the history of Stephen’s College to receive this award.
- During her flying training at Oklahoma State University (OSU), Wally Funk received the “Outstanding Female Pilot” trophy, the “Flying Aggie Top Pilot” and the “Alfred Alder Memorial Trophy” two years in succession.
- In 1965, Funk was selected as one of the “Outstanding Young Women in America.
- In the 1960s, she was listed in “Who’s Who in Young Women in America” and “Who’s Who in Aviation.”
- In 1968, Wally Funk became the 58th woman in the United States to earn Airline Transport Rating. Ninety-Nines
- In 1975, the Governor of Louisiana named her Honorary Colonel.
- In 2017, Wally Funk’s name was inscribed on the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum’s Wall of Honor “in recognition of your contribution to our aviation and exploration heritage.”
- When Funk was barely a year old, she had her first experience with airplanes; her parents had taken her to an airport near their residence in New Mexico, where she got up close to a Douglas DC-3, an early airliner. Wally Funk says,
I go right to the wheel and I try to turn the nut, and mother said: ‘She’s going to fly.’”
- Wally Funk grew up skiing, riding her bike or her horse, hunting, and fishing in Taos, New Mexico.
- At the age of five, Wally Funk leaped off her father’s barn in Taos, New Mexico, wearing a Superman cape. According to Funk, it was a pivotal moment in inspiring her to pursue a career as a pilot. Los Angeles Times
- While studying in high school, Funk wanted to take courses such as mechanical drawing and auto mechanics; however, being a girl, she was only permitted to take courses such as home economics. Columbia Missourian
- According to Funk, she was not excellent at studies, but she was cynical about flying. She says,
I was not an ‘A’ student. But, flying was my thing. I did what I had to do to fly.”
- At the age of nine, Wally Funk had her first flying lesson, when a pilot let her help steer a plane and told her parents that she’d done a great job. In an interview, Funk recalled the moment. She said,
The air and how pretty it was, and how the ground looked. It was probably all of 15 minutes.”
- While studying at Stephen’s College in Columbia, Missouri, Wally Funk was a member of the “Flying Susies,” and she was the last one to receive her pilot’s license. In an interview, she talked about this, She said,
I was the last ‘Flying Susie’ to receive my license.”
- During her flying training at Stephen’s College, she was required to do 100 miles of flying. According to Funk, she would often pick up her parents while flying around the countryside. Funk says,
I was required to do 100 miles of flying so I would fly around the countryside and even pick up my parents.”
- When the 21-year-old Wally Funk joined Fort Sill, Oklahoma as a Civilian Flight Instructor, she was the only female one at a US military base. The Guardian
- On June 23, 1975, Wally Funk joined a luncheon at the White House in Washington, D.C. at the request of Mrs. Gerald Ford.
- In 1995, she attended the launch when Eileen Collins became the first female pilot and first female commander of a Space Shuttle. Reportedly, during the launch, Wally became so emotional that she cried out,
Go Eileen. Go for all of us.”
- Apart from flying airplanes, Wally has an interest in other aspects of flying including parachute jumping, ballooning, and hang-gliding.
- At her residence in Grapevine, Wally has dedicated a corner for her collection of space and aviation memorabilia that she’s accumulated over the years.