Flying High on Friday

On my way to work this morning, I caught the regular Friday installment of StoryCorps on NPR. I love this special part of every Friday morning—the moment when I get to hear stories from regular people about the lives they lead, the goals they have, their trials and tribulations, and their successes along the way.

On this particular morning, I nearly jumped out of my skin with excitement. The woman sharing the story was a pilot. She had dreams of space flight in the 1960s and even took the same tests as the Mercury 7 astronauts. She was part of a group of women known as the Mercury 13, and while NASA closed the door on these women and their dream of space flight in the 1960s, today—at age 78—this pilot is going into space with or without NASA’s help.

Even before the story on NPR, I knew exactly who she was: Wally Funk. Her story is incredible, and to get just a flavor of it, I highly recommend checking out her story on StoryCorps.

While I haven’t actually met Wally in person, I feel like I know her. During my college years at Mount Holyoke, my advisor (Martha Ackmann) was working on a book about the Mercury 13. She needed students to help transcribe her interviews for the book, and I spent countless hours listening to Martha’s conversations with Wally and copying down every word as carefully as I could. Martha’s book, The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight, came out a few years after I did those transcriptions. I’ve read it. It’s fantastic, and if any of my blog readers is interested in history, space flight, science, or just reading a really good story, click here to check it out. I also highly recommend visiting Martha’s website at this link.

The transcriptions of Wally’s conversation with my advisor inspired me so much that I found myself eager to get behind the wheel of a plane and try my hand as a pilot. And for my 25th birthday, I did just that. I was living in D.C. at the time, and an airport in Virginia offered to give interested customers a chance to fly (under the guidance of a licensed pilot, of course). The pilot sat beside me in the cockpit, gave me a quick course on all the instruments, and even let me take off and maneuver the plane in the air without any assistance. The landing was the only part I was not allowed to do myself—as it turns out, you really do need a pilot’s license for that.

I loved the experience. I don’t think I’ll go for my pilot’s license just yet, but after being up there among the clouds, controlling the movements of the plane and looking down on the world below, I can definitely understand the appeal. Wally Funk found her home in the cockpit, and I’m confident that she’ll make her dream come true and get to space before too long. Who knows, maybe she’ll inspire me again, and I’ll find a way to go there, too, one day.

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