Female aviation pioneer to share her fervor for flight at Stephens College

Tuesday, March 20, 2012 | 6:20 p.m. CDT; updated 7:49 p.m. CDT, Monday, April 1, 2013
Wally Funk, a female pioneer in aviation, encourages students of Hickman High School's Columbia Aeronautics and Space Association class on Tuesday. Funk recounted stories of her experience as a member of Mercury 13.

COLUMBIA — Wally Funk isn't afraid of anything.

"Fear is not a part of my family," Funk, who played an important role in pioneering female aviation, said.

If you go

What: Wally Funk, female aviation legend, will discuss her life as a female pilot, her role as a member of Mercury 13 and her upcoming venture into space.

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Kimball Ballroom, Lela Raney Wood Hall, 1200 E. Broadway

Admission: Free

More Information: Stephens College

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As a child, Funk showed tremendous interest in adventure.

At five years old, she leapt off her father's barn in Taos, N.M., wearing a Superman cape, which was a pivotal moment in inspiring her to pursue a career as a pilot, Funk said.

Funk spoke Tuesday to Hickman High School students as a prelude to her public presentation at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Stephens College. The program is free and open to the public.

The desire to fly

Funk said her mother had a strong desire to fly as a young girl, but her father deemed these dreams unfeasible because, at the time, girls were not allowed to wear britches.

"My mother passed the flying gene down to me," Funk said. "I was given the gift of great confidence and born with the ability to fly."

And flying is just what she did.

In regards to aviation, Funk said she knew she was always in a man's world. But with the success and guidance of her parents, she pursued her dream of becoming a pilot.

Even as a high school student, Funk said she wanted to take courses such as mechanical drawing and auto mechanics. Because she was a girl, however, she was only permitted to take courses such as home economics.

"I was not an 'A' student," Funk said. "But, flying was my thing. I did what I had to do to fly."

At the age of 16, Funk came to Stephens College and enrolled in the aviation program, according to The Ninety-Nines Inc. Funk was a member of the "Flying Susies" and rated first in her class of 24 fliers. She graduated from Stephens College in 1958 with an associate degree and her pilot's license.

"I was the last 'Flying Susie' to receive my license," Funk said. "I was required to do 100 miles of flying so I would fly around the countryside and even pick up my parents."

A member of Mercury 13

Funk volunteered for the Women in Space Program, a female astronaut-testing program, in February, 1961, according to The Ninety-Nines Inc. She was one of the 25 women chosen for the program.

Funk then persevered through the same strenuous physical and mental tests that the men in Mercury Seven endured and became the youngest member of Mercury 13.

"The tests had access to see how men's bodies reacted, but then, they wanted to see how women's bodies reacted," Funk said. "Girls reacted better and we didn't complain nearly as much."

Ranking third out of the 13 qualified women candidates, Funk said she even beat out U.S. Astronaut John Glenn on many of the tests.

Funk said there was an intent to send women up to space, but President Eisenhower eventually mandated that only military male test pilots could be picked as astronauts for the Mercury space program.

Although Funk participated in a multitude of rigorous tests and was unable to go into space, she had no regrets.

"It was all about the experience," Funk said. "Nothing bothered me at all."

It's all in your attitude

Speaking to a classroom full of Hickman High School students, Funk attributes her positive attitude to reaching success.

A plethora of students' hands shot high into the air when Funk asked students, "Who here experiences stress in their life?"

"Don't let stress get into your life. You will lose faith in yourself," Funk told the students. "When people see your talent and passion, you will go far. You have to express yourself."

As a woman in the prominently male aviation field, Funk knew she had the attitude to succeed and make her mark.

"I was determined to follow my dreams," Funk said. "I have never filled out an application in my life. I was offered jobs due to my attitude."

She asked the students what they would like to be when they grow up. One student said an actor. Another said a physical therapist. One even said a pilot.

She welcomed these ideas with enthusiasm and encouragement.

"Being positive is key," she told the students. "You guys can do anything you want to do."

Future space plans

Funk has achieved so much in her aviation career, but has yet to travel into space. However, this may change within the coming year, she said. 

"I have been waiting to go into space since 1961. It's time," Funk said. "I can hardly wait to get into space."

Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic asked her to be a team member on SpaceShipTwo, she said. She will go into space in 2013.

"I have had a very charmed life in aviation," Funk said.

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Brenda Landing March 23, 2012 | 8:59 a.m.

Wally, just wanted to say hello from another Missouri female pilot. Member of the Houston 99s, licensed in KCMO at the downtown airport 1973.

(Report Comment)
randy richmond March 26, 2012 | 7:40 a.m.
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