Aviation, Determination, and the Spirit of Taos Mountain: A Q&A with Wally Funk
By Quinn Doll
In the ’60s, at the age of 22, Wally Funk was the youngest member of NASA’s Woman In Space program, one of the Mercury 13 who participated in a privately funded training program to determine whether women could meet the rigorous requirements of space travel. Despite the fact that many of the women performed as well as their male counterparts, the program was closed in 1962. Funk is also the youngest woman to achieve the Alumna Achievement Award at Stephens. She was the first woman in the US to hold a position as a specialist in the Systems Worthiness Analysis Program at the Federal Aviation Administration. She was also the first woman Air Safety Investigator at the National Transportation Safety Board. She has traveled the world and met Valentina Tereshkova. She is a member of the ninety-nines, has every rating the Federal Aviation Administration can offer, and spends her time traveling the country speaking and mentoring young pilots.
Wally Funk as a young pilot in 1960, and today, still an inspiring speaker and mentor..
While you were away, we called legendary pilot and Stephens aviation school alumni Wally Funk, and gained insight on what makes Stephens graduates such powerful role models for women around the world.
Q: You're interested in flying very early on. How did you decide on a career in aviation?
A: I was born and raised in Taos, New Mexico. That's in the mountains. Well, my father had a Five and Ten store -- Buck’s Five and Ten -- on the plaza. Oh, I would go there and shine shoes and sell my rabbits to the tourists. Okay, now, when I was 2 years old, my parents took me to some airport -- I don’t know where it was. And I saw that airplane and that airplane was a DC-3. And I went right over to that wheel of the DC-3 honey and tried to turn it. I knew I wanted to see if it was tight or loose. I had an imagination for flying that young. At 2.
Now, to make this come a little closer to truth. The Taos mountain has the spirit of the mountain. The Spirit of Taos. Mother always said: “When you wake up, you put the blinds back and you look at the Taos mountain. And you see what the spirit of the Taos mountain wants you to do today.” Now, that might sound funny to you. But that's exactly what she said. And, honey, I have done that every day. I did it today. I looked at a picture of the mountain: “What am I going to do today?” Because there's not much to do. But that Taos mountain, the spirit of that Taos mountain, has given me my life. And it has been absolutely wonderous. I've never been in trouble; I've never had an accident. I've been a pilot, I've got 19,600 [flying hours]. That's more than most Captains have. I’ve taught over, oh golly, 3,000 people to fly.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you've had to face? And how did you overcome it?
A: Oh, I’ve never had any challenges! I have never had anything that I couldn’t do. I can fix a car, I can fix an airplane. I have built two homes. I'm one of these people that has been very blessed with knowing exactly what to do. When took the astronaut test, I was the youngest. My parents had to drive me to Albuquerque. And they said, “Well, you're too young. Your parents have to sign you in.” “And I said, "Well, that's OK. They're here.” I beat all the guys, 105 guys took the same test. Only 20 passed. The girls, the girls, there were 123 girls and only thirteen passed. That's why it's called the Mercury 13. But according to Dr. Loveless, I beat all the girls on all tests in Albuquerque. Because I had it in my head that the spirit of Taos mountain was making me the best I could be in any physical, mental battle. Whatever they wanted, I did it without any problem. I did it.
Q: You said earlier that you had built two houses. Could you talk a little bit about the two houses you built?
The first one was in Taos, New Mexico. I built a house there, and a hanger. Because I had four airplanes. You gotta have a hanger because it's snowing in the mountains. I owned four airplanes. Unfortunately, I don't have any of them now. So, my house in Taos was built out of adobe brick. And adobe brick is dirt and water and compressed into brick bigger than a shoebox. And then you let it dry for a couple of weeks. And then you stack them. And that's what I did -- thousands, thousands of adobe bricks, because I built a two-story house. Since I always sign my name with a heart, I had two hearts made. And they're at the front door and the back door. And even though I sold the house, the hearts are still there. The other house I built- not from scratch, but I took care of it. Rebuilt it. This was here in Texas. The plumbing was all bad. And I knew how to do the plumbing and the gas. And I remodeled that two- story house.
Q: So what are you working on now? I had to go out and get lumber this afternoon and finish building the garage door. That's what I was doing. The winds have been so bad, and the door to the garage has been so bad with the weather. I had to go out and buy some lumber and come back.
That's what I was doing today. Then this morning I was able to fix the outside of my window here. You know what when I look out my window I look out over a field and there are about seven cows that are Four-H cows, and I feed them bread when they’ll come up to the fence. So they all like to come to the fence. And then I have a bird feeder and I've got robins coming in now. I’ve had a great thing with animals. I’ve had kitties most of my life I’ve raised rabbits.
Q: Do you have any good advice for Stephens students?
I was brought up to do things on my own and be professional at it. Kids today are not taught to be professional when they're young. And they should be. Do the best possible that they can do. Hopefully, it's not out of a book. Do you have any friends that are tomboys to go out and ride or shoot, and build things? Do you have any of those kinds of friends or are they all book people?
At Stephens, at my first few weeks Columbia Hall, I was on the second floor. And it had rained and I had caught a frog. You know ‘cause I was always catching frogs and snakes and stuff and bringing them home and letting them loose in the yard. So, I find the frog, honey. And I took it in and I put it on the bathtub rim. And my roommate Sydney, she went into the bathroom, and saw the frog and screamed and had a real fit. I said, “Come here. Hold out your hand.” “Oh no, no, no. I’m not gonna do that," she said. And I said “Do something for me.” And once I’d finally got her to do that and the frog sat in her hand, then I could get her to put it back on the back of the bathtub. And I took a bath with a frog on the back of that bathtub. She never did it. But she said, “Oh, well. It's okay.” That was one of my funnier memories of Stephens: taking a frog into the bathroom.