Category: Non-Fiction
Title: Higher Faster Longer —My Life in Aviation and My Quest for Space Flight
Reviewed by: Ted Spitzmiller
Author: Wally Funk (as told to Loretta Hall)
NSS Amazon link for this book
Format: Paperback/Kindle
Pages: 243
Publisher: Traitmarker Books
Date: July 2020
Retail Price: $17.99/$9.99
ISBN: 978-164970461

This book is the life-story of one of 13 women who, in 1960-61, were selected to undergo the same physical testing as had the original seven American astronauts. What made this activity unique was that it was funded by a private individual, aviatrix Jacqueline Cochrane. It was performed at the same facility, Lovelace Medical Center, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and overseen by the same Dr. Randy Lovelace, who had tested the first NASA astronauts little more than a year earlier.

There were two objectives. The first was to confirm that women could successfully pass the same physical requirements as the men. The second was to convince NASA to consider adding women to the astronaut corps. A total of 13 of the 19 women tested successfully completed the evaluation.

The book begins with a three-page summary of the group’s testing that came to be called the Mercury 13 (as opposed to the original Mercury 7). The subject of this book, Wally Funk, expresses her disappointment that, despite proving their objective, the government (NASA) refused to allow women to participate during this early phase of the human space program. These opening pages set the stage for an amazing career in aviation—and her life in general.

The early chapters define her Southwest upbringing in Taos, New Mexico and reveal an early interest in aviation. Although an Anglo, she had a deep association with Hispanic and Native American cultures. Being immersed in a male dominated society it was expected that the female would adhere to the traditional female roles and responsibilities, Wally became interested in many male activities such as marksmanship. Her parents were a strong influence, especially her mother with whom she maintained a life-long relationship, often bringing her along on Wally’s many escapades.

In high school she was attracted to mechanical drafting but was coerced into taking female classes like home economics. Her athletic abilities were obvious when at the age of 16 she competed in the American Legion junior ski championships in Sun Valley Idaho, representing the state of New Mexico.

Wally skipped her senior year in high school and attended a two-year program at Stevens College in Columbia Mo. She majored in physics and entered their aviation program that included flight training that resulted in her soloing at age 18 in 1957—solidifying her interest in an aviation career.

Upon graduating from Stephens, she enrolled at Oklahoma State University and continuing her aviation education. She became an active member of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots, and soloed a glider on but her fifth flight. She competed in the National Intercollegiate Flying Association and, among her many accolades, received the Ninety-Nines Achievement Award.

Graduating from Oklahoma State in 1960, she had earned her commercial, single- and multi-engine land pilot certificate and single-engine seaplane, glider, and instrument rating. She also became a flight instructor and garnered all the ground instructor certificates. She began her flight instructing career, one of many aviation-oriented positions she would hold, at Ft. Still, Oklahoma, at the military Red Leg Flying Club, teaching Army personnel to fly.

Wally’s introduction to the space program and the effort that would ultimately be known as the Mercury 13 began simply enough while paging through the October 1960 edition of Life magazine. She encountered a photo and accompanying story of Jerri Cobb, who was the first woman to undergo the same tests that the Mercury astronauts had recently completed. Wally’s enthusiasm to become a member of the NASA space program was born. She quickly sent a series of letters to those involved, which resulted in her selection as only the third person to be part of the testing group.

It is interesting to learn that while she had experienced a wide swath of life in her then 22 years, she didn’t know what it meant when asked during the examination to provide a stool sample.

In 1965, Wally decided to see a bit of the world and toured Europe and Africa in a Volkswagen camper. Her chronicle of the 20 months and 85,000 miles and 59 countries is a fascinating travelogue. She was 28 when she returned to her job as a Chief Flight Instructor in 1967.

She earned her Airline Transport Certificate (ATP) n 1968, only the 58th woman to achieve that professional level. At that time there were about 34,000 men who held that coveted achievement. Perhaps one of her memorable statements is, “The only thing a woman needs to compete in a man’s world is ability.” Another great comment is, “Negativity contaminates energy; it slows you down. Your goal is to keep ‘saying yes, I can do it,’ and keep moving forward with confidence.” These are just a few of many words of wisdom that Wally shares with her readers. She also notes, “I have lived my life in male-dominated fields, not because I had an axe to grind, but because those fields were interesting to me. I don’t resent men or feel threatened by them, I just don’t think there are jobs that only they can do.”

Another exciting opportunity occurred in 1971 when, because of her extensive aviation knowledge, she became the first woman hired by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to investigate aviation accidents. Her review of several high-profile accidents is quite revealing. She retired from the NTSB in 1985

Much of the latter part of the book is a travel log and remembrances of organizations while she had been associated with aviation. A round trip from New York City to London was quite special as she took five days to sail across the Atlantic on the QE II and but three and one-half hours to return on the Concorde. That was just one of the many experiences she relates that give an indication of her desire to experience a wide variety of interests.

Wally would apply to NASA four times over more than 20 years but was never able to meet the litany of requirements that were established for degreed scientists or engineering test pilots with lots experience in high performance jets. She had several close opportunities to experience space travel including privately funded suborbital flights but for a variety of reasons they never occurred.

But her quest is not over, as she has paid the $200,000 for a private venture on Virgin Galactic and is patiently awaiting the first passenger flights. Wally’s collaborator, Loretta Hall, has done an excellent job of helping reveal the character of this wonderful personality. This book is an interesting account of an extraordinary life. I would recommend it for anyone, and would particularly encourage young women to consider reading it for the insights revealed.

© 2021 Ted Spitzmiller

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