Wally Funk is a pioneer American aviator who, at the age of 21, was the youngest member of the Mercury 13 program, a privately funded project in the 1960s that meant to see how women held up to the pressures of spaceflight. With 19,600 hours of flight time, Wally Funk has taught more than 3,000 people to fly, and she has also trained thousands of Private, Commercial, Multi-engine, Seaplane, Glider, Instrument, CFI, Al and Air Transport Pilots. After a wait of over six decades, Wally Funk finally got an opportunity to become an astronaut when Jeff Bezos invited her to join him on his voyage to space, aboard his own rocket, built by his company Blue Origin, on July 20, 2021, making her the oldest person to fly to space.
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. While growing up in Taos, New Mexico, where her parents ran a chain of shops, her mother noticed that she was not like a typical American girl, rather she was a tomboy who would ride horses and compete in marksmanship contests.
At an early age, Wally Funk was fascinated by flying, and the interest developed at such an early age that according to Funk, she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t fascinated by flying. When Wally turned seven, she started making planes from balsa wood. According to Wally, while she was growing up, her parents never discouraged her outdoor adventures, and they always supported her outdoor ventures. Wally believes that it was her parents’ encouragement that made her feel she could do anything she wanted. Wally says,
I did everything that people didn’t expect a girl to do. There was nothing I couldn’t do.”
After attending a school in New Mexico, Wally Funk, at the age of 16, went to Stephen’s College in Columbia, Missouri, where she graduated with an Associate of Arts degree and her pilot’s license in 1958.; she was rated first in her class of 24 flyers. Ninety-Nines When Wally joined Stephen’s College, she hadn’t even graduated from High School. Huck Magazine Wally talked about this in an interview. She said,
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.”
During her stay at Stephen’s College, Wally became so involved in flying that once 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.”
After graduating from Stephen’s College, Wally Funk went to Oklahoma State University, where she pursued a Bachelor of Science 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, the reason behind attending Oklahoma State University (OSU) was that she was drawn to their famous “Flying Aggies” program. The Guardian Wally says,
As a Flying Aggie, I could do all the manoeuvres as well as the boys, if not better.”
At Oklahoma State University (OSU), Wally Funk became an officer of the famous “Flying Aggies,” and she also flew for them in the International Collegiate Air Meets.
Height (approx.): 5′ 7″
Hair Color: Gray
Eye Color: Hazel Brown
Wally Funk’s father owned a five-and-ten store in Taos, New Mexico, while her mother was an art enthusiast. In an interview, Wally revealed that her mother was also passionate about flying and wanted to become a pilot, but her father did not believe in these dreams as it was an era during which girls were not even allowed to wear britches. Wally talked about this in an interview. She said,
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.”
By the age of 21, Wally Funk had become a professional aviator and started working as a Civilian Flight Instructor of noncommissioned and commissioned officers of the United States Army after she joined Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1960. In an interview, Wally revealed that she barged into the local airfield office and asked,
Does anybody need a flight instructor?”
In the fall of 1961, Wally Funk started as a Certified Flight Instructor, Charter, and Chief Pilot at an aviation company in Hawthorne, California. In 1970, after receiving the Commercial Glider Rating, she joined Redondo High School in California, where she taught five Aeronautical Science classes. Wally’s work was recognized by Sacramento’s Educational Board; they appreciated her efforts for giving high school students a head start and interest in aviation. In 1971, Wally Funk became the first woman to successfully complete the FAA General Aviation Operations Inspector Academy course, which included Pilot Certification and Flight Testing procedures, handling accidents and violations.
In 1973, Wally Funk became the first woman in the United States to be promoted as a specialist to FAA SWAP (Systems Worthiness Analysis Program). Ninety-Nines In late November 1973, after returning to the FAA Academy, Wally took courses involving air-taxi, charter, and aviation rental businesses. Later, she traveled to Nevada, Arizona, and California, where she inspected flight schools and air taxi operations. On December 9, 1974, she joined the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, D.C. as Air Safety Investigator; Wally Funk was their first female Investigator. While working at the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, DC., Wally Funk attended two schools for field investigators to learn the many elements contributing to airplane accidents and how to investigate them.
In 1961, Wally Funk became the youngest member of the Mercury 13 program, a privately funded project meant to see how women held up to the pressures of spaceflight, and a program that never saw the light of day. Wally Funk’s childhood fantasy of traveling to space was triggered when she stumbled upon an article while reading Life magazine. The article entitled ‘A Lady Proves She’s Fit for Space Flight,’ which was published on August 29, 1960, described a series of terrifying endurance tests that aviator Geraldyn ‘Jerrie’ Cobb had just successfully completed; these tests were designed to test the aspiring astronauts. After going through the article, Wally Funk decided that she would also pass these tests. To register herself for these tests, she wrote letters to Cobb and Dr. William Randolph Lovelace, the man who devised the trials. Soon, Wally Funk was inducted into the Woman in Space Program for which she traveled to Albuquerque, where she underwent five and a half days of rigorous tasks and intrusive examinations during which she had to ingest radioactive material and pour icy water into her ears; these tests were almost similar to the tests taken by male astronauts of Mercury 7, NASA’s first successful human space mission. After taking these tests successfully, Wally Funk, at the age of 21, became the youngest member of the Mercury 13; Cobb and 11 other successful participants also joined the program.
Wally Funk’s performance was considered the third-best in the Mercury 13 program. Later, the Mercury 13 program was called off even after all its participants proved that they could endure extreme physical punishment. Reportedly, the program was scrapped because its private funding was pulled. Many prominent NASA figures were also reluctant to send women to space, and they testified against the idea of female astronauts as they believed that it was “against the natural order.” For all the members of the Mercury 13, the space voyage never saw the light of day.
Wally Funk is a prolific aviator who has displayed various aerobatic maneuvers in several women’s air races including Powder Puff Derby’s 25th Annual Race, Pacific Air Race, Palms to Pines Air Race in which she stood 8th, 6th, and 8th respectively. She stood second in the Palms to Pines All Women Air Race that took place from Santa Monica, California to Independence, Oregon on August 16, 1975. On October 4, 1975, Wally Funk emerged as the winner of the Pacific Air Race from San Diego, California to Santa Rosa, California; she won the race against 80 participating competitors while flying her red and white Citabria.
Television and Radio Programs
Wally Funk has appeared on various television and radio programs, giving interviews and interacting with professionals. In November 1973, Wally Funk’s interview was aired on the “Ad Lib” television program “What Will The Women Be Doing. In the same year, Wally was interviewed on the “Mike Douglas Television Show.” In the fall of 1975, Wally Funk’s interview was aired on “Salute of Women In Aviation,” a Gene Burke’s television program. In February 1995, Wally Funk was featured as ten of the original thirteen female astronaut candidates on NBC’s “Dateline.”
Featured in Magazine and Tabloids
Several magazines and tabloids including ‘Life,’ ‘Town and Country,’ and ‘Ms Magazine’ have featured Wally Funk. ‘Aviation News Illustrated,’ the ‘Oklahoma State Alumnus’ magazine, has featured Wally Funk on its front cover. In 1969, Wally Funk was featured in eight South African and European magazines. Moreover, 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.’
Books and Films
Wally Funk’s contributions to the aviation and space sectors have been acknowledged in several books and films such as 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, Sue Nelson, one of the close friends of Wally Funk, published a biography entitled ‘Wally Funk’s Race for Space,’ which was published by the Chicago Review Press.
Jeff Bezos’ Invitation to Space
On July 1, 2021, Jeff Bezos announced through an Instagram post that Wally Funk would be part of a four-person crew set to be launched into space by Blue Origin on July 20, 2021. It was nearly a half-century of waiting that Wally got an opportunity to realize her childhood dream of going into space. During a media interaction, Wally reacted to Jeff Bezos’ invitation. She 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, Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket successfully landed back in West Texas deserts after making a successful journey into space, carrying Wally Funk and three fellow passengers Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos, and an 18-year-old physics student Oliver Daemen. According to Mr. Bezos, he chose the date to celebrate the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The duration of the flight was 10 minutes (from its launch to capsule touchdown in the desert), and it reached a height of 107 km above the earth, while Richard Branson’s trip to space and back lasted about 90 minutes from take-off to landing, which reached a height of 86 km. According to sources, Elon Musk’s flight promises to reach a height of 300 km above the earth, which would last about three to four days from take-off to landing.
Awards & Achievements
- When Wally was 14, the National Rifle Association sent her incredible shooting results to President Dwight Eisenhower, who later wrote back to Wally, appreciating her work. The Guardian
- In 1964, she became the youngest woman in the history of Stephen’s College to receive the Alumna Achievement Award.
- While Wally Funk was undergoing her flying training at Oklahoma State University (OSU), she received the “Outstanding Female Pilot” trophy, the “Flying Aggie Top Pilot” and the “Alfred Alder Memorial Trophy” two years in succession.
- In 1965, Wally Funk was declared one of the “Outstanding Young Women in America.
- In the 1960s, Wally Funk was also listed in “Who’s Who in Young Women in America” and “Who’s Who in Aviation.”
- In 1968, Wally Funk earned Airline Transport Rating, becoming the 58th woman in the United States to do so. Ninety-Nines
- In 1975, Wally Funk was named Honorary Colonel by the Governor of Louisiana.
- In 2017, her 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.”
- Wally Funk first time experienced airplanes at the age of just one when she was taken to an airport near their residence in New Mexico by her parents, where she closely watched a Douglas DC-3, an early airliner. In an interview, she reminisced about her first experience with airplanes. She said,
I go right to the wheel and I try to turn the nut, and mother said: ‘She’s going to fly.’”
- She spent most of her childhood skiing, riding her bike or her horse, hunting, and fishing in Taos, New Mexico.
- When the five-year-old Wally leaped off her father’s barn in Taos, New Mexico, wearing a Superman cape, it became a pivotal moment in her life that inspired her to pursue a career as a pilot. Los Angeles Times
- Being a girl, Wally was only permitted to take courses such as home economics in high school; however, she wanted to take courses such as mechanical drawing and auto mechanics. Columbia Missourian
- According to Wally, her fascination for flying was so intense that she compromised with her formal studies and was never excellent at studies. Wally says,
I was not an ‘A’ student. But, flying was my thing. I did what I had to do to fly.”
- When Wally turned nine, she had her first flying lesson, when a pilot helped her steer a plane, and while praising Wally’s skills, he told her parents that she’d done a great job. In an interview, Wally reminisced the moment. She said,
The air and how pretty it was, and how the ground looked. It was probably all of 15 minutes.”
- Wally Funk was a member of the “Flying Susies” at Stephen’s College in Columbia, Missouri, where she was the last one to receive her pilot’s license. Wally says,
I was the last ‘Flying Susie’ to receive my license.”
- According to Wally Funk, while she was undergoing her flying training at Stephen’s College, she would often pick up her parents while flying around the countryside as she was required to do 100 miles of flying. In an interview, Wally talked about this. She said,
I was required to do 100 miles of flying so I would fly around the countryside and even pick up my parents.”
- Wally Funk was the only female one at a US military base when, aged 21, she joined Fort Sill, Oklahoma as a Civilian Flight Instructor. The Guardian
- On June 23, 1975, Wally Funk attended a luncheon at the White House in Washington, D.C.; she joined the luncheon at the request of Mrs. Gerald Ford.
- In 1995, Wally Funk witnessed the launch of Eileen Collins, who went on to become the first female pilot and first female commander of a Space Shuttle. At the launch, an emotional Wally cried out,
Go Eileen. Go for all of us.”
- When Wally is not flying an aircraft, she gets herself involved in other aspects of flying like ballooning, parachute jumping, and hang-gliding.
- At Wally’s residence in Grapevine, there’s a corner dedicated to her collection of space and aviation memorabilia that she’s accumulated over the years.