There’s a photograph early in Wally Funk’s book showing a 2-year-old Funk looking close-up at a tire of a DC-3 airplane parked at the Taos airport. The book says the little miss was curious about how the wheel was attached to the strut.
Born in Las Vegas, N.M., Funk grew up in Taos in the 1940s and early ’50s.
As a kid, Wally loved gluing together model airplanes, not playing with dolls.
“There was something about flying that seemed magical to me,” Funk writes in the first chapter of her memoir ‘Higher Faster Longer: My Life in Aviation and My Quest for Spaceflight.” She and Albuquerque writer Loretta Hall co-authored the book, which highlights Funk’s pioneering spirit, can-do attitude and sense of adventure – all inspirations for young women.
At Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, Funk changed her major from music to aviation, got her private pilot’s license and was a member of the school’s student flight team. After getting an associate’s degree, she transferred to Oklahoma State’s aviation program. She was a student pilot on cross-country flights and learned to fly gliders. By graduation, Funk had earned a series of pilot and instructor ratings and licenses. Her first job, in 1960, was at Fort Sill, Oklahoma teaching commissioned and noncommissioned officers to fly.
A magazine article about a woman Funk knew caught her eye: The woman was apparently being tested to be an astronaut in NASA’s nascent space program. Funk wanted to be part of the program. Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace of Albuquerque, who administered extensive physical exams for NASA’s male-only Mercury astronaut candidates, was now testing female candidates.
Lovelace gave Funk the green light for an initial round of tests. Awaiting the OK for further exams, she got word they were cancelled; Dr. Lovelace was testing women without NASA’s involvement. Funk was disappointed, though she didn’t sulk. She always bounced back from adversity.
“I believed I would eventually go into space. So I threw it a fish,” she writes. Funk explained that Taos Pueblo friends used the phrase “Throw it a fish,” meaning if something goes wrong, you can’t do anything about it.
Funk cheerfully moved on. She took a job as a flight instructor/chief pilot for a flying service in southern California. The job required her to ensure its pilots were well-trained and its aircraft properly maintained. For fun, Funk bought a 1940s-era biplane to perform aerial acrobatics.
At her next job, she became the first female inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration; on her own she made her first parachute jump and learned to fly a blimp.
Then she achieved another first. She was hired as the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. After retiring from the NTSB, Funk returned to Taos for a while, opening a school to teach mountain flying and joining the local squadron of the Civil Air Patrol; at CAP she qualified as a mission pilot, instructor pilot and flight release officer.
Funk has not given up her quest of space flight. In 2010, she wrote a check for $200,000 for a passenger seat on a planned Virgin Galactic suborbital flight from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico. For now, her quest remains on hold.
“Now, we’ll be lucky if I get my ride in 2021,” Funk writes. Her website is wallyfly.com.
• • •
Another book with a strong aviation pioneer element and a New Mexico tie-in is “Destiny Strikes Twice: James L. Breese, Aviator and Inventor” by Larry Kilham. Breese was the flight engineer of the crew of the Curtiss NC-4 seaplane that made the first trans-Atlantic flight in May 1919. It flew from New York to Newfoundland, to the Azores, then Portugal and finally hopped to England.
Leaving behind society life on the East Coast, Breese moved to Santa Fe in 1929. Over the next 30 years, he became an innovator and inventor, developing more than 130 patents for home and military space heaters and building a successful oil burner business, Kilham writes.
Breese was the maternal grandfather of Kilham, the author, who lives in Santa Fe.