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Still dreaming: Aviation trailblazer Wally Funk returns to Stillwater

Oklahoma State University alumna Wally Funk is greeted at Stillwater Regional Airport on Monday by the Cowboy Marching Band.
Oklahoma State University
Oklahoma State University alumna Wally Funk is greeted at Stillwater Regional Airport on Monday by the Cowboy Marching Band.

Wally Funk grinned and waved to the crowd from the round window on the plane.

Oklahoma State University's Spirit Band played and people cheered as Funk walked down the steps of the private jet. The Flying Aggies, pom, cheer, Pistol Pete, students and community members greeted the flying cowgirl at the gate, welcoming her back to Stillwater, Oklahoma on Monday.

“I didn’t expect all of this,” Funk said.

In July, the OSU alum and Flying Aggie became the oldest person to fly in space with Jeff Bezos, Oliver Daemon and Mark Bezos on Blue Origin’s rocket the New Shepard, adding to her ceiling-shattering accomplishments.

Some of her achievements include becoming the first female Air Safety Investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, the first woman to successfully finish the Federal Aviation Administration’s Operation Inspector Academy Course and being one of the first 13 women qualified to be in space, known as the Mercury 13.

Later, at the “Conversation with Wally Funk” event at the McKnight Center for the Performing Arts, Funk said she wanted the house lights on. Instantaneously, the performance hall lit up, revealing hundreds of students, including members of Flying Aggies and her sorority Alpha Chi Omega, and people from the community including state Rep. Trish Ranson and Stillwater City Councilor Christie Hawkins. She then pulled out her red camera and took pictures of the crowd.

At the event, OSU announced the $1,000 Wally Funk Scholarship. This scholarship will be given annually for students who want to be in aviation.

Funk told her story, but also offered advice to students.

“If your goal is to keep on saying ‘Yes, I can do it,’ keep moving forward with confidence,” Funk said. “Don’t ever sit on a pile of negative.”

Describing her Blue Origin’s flight, Funk said her trip to and from space was smooth.

“When we lifted off, I didn’t feel anything, all I had was the noise and I had ear plugs,” Funk said. “When the vehicle departed, and we went off into space, we didn’t feel it. It was wonderful, and not at all what I expected.”

Once the crew got to space, Funk expected to see the world, but she said all she saw was black. There, she loosened the straps of her seat, got out of her chair and began to move around the small capsule.

After three minutes of twisting and turning in weightlessness, she sat down and strapped herself back in, and they began their descent back to Earth. When the vehicle landed, Funk said she did not feel anything, all she saw was dust out the capsule window.

“When we got into space, it was so fabulous,” Funk said. “The seat was like, ah, I could have gone to sleep in that seat, it was so beautiful.”

This summer, Funk’s flight to space made history and the instructor is still dreaming to go higher, immersing herself in the experience.

“I would like to go up again, but I want to go to ISS (International Space Station),” Funk said. “I still want to do that.”

Funk graduated from Stephens College, and chose to attend OSU because of aviation. She said in flying competitions, she competed against the Flying Aggies and this fueled her drive to attend OSU.

“You all [Flying Aggies] won, time, and time, and time after time,” Funk said.

Opening the McKnight Center event, Jon Pederson, the dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences, said getting to know and introducing Funk is a proud moment.

“I’ve lived a very charmed life,” Pederson said. “I’ve met a lot of people; presidents, dignitaries and I told her [Funk] today, and I’m very sincere about this: Wally, this is best.”

At the end of the evening, Pederson along with student aviation leaders presented Wally with a Flying Cowgirl poster and a proclamation from Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt for her accomplishments in aviation.

Although the “Women in Space” Program ended 60 years ago, aviation is still a mainly male-dominated industry. Tara Serocki is an aerospace administration and operations senior, safety officer for the Flying Aggies, membership chair for the Women in Aviation and secretary for the American Association of Airport Executives. She said, in her first college course out of 30 students there were two women, including herself.

Holding up her commercial pilot’s certificate, she said there are 58,000 other women in the nation who have the license.

“We are only 8% of all the certificated pilots in America, that’s why women representation is so incredibly important,” Serocki said.

In addition to speaking at the McKnight Center event, Serocki was at Funk's landing. She said Funk’s motto for the summer — "make it happen" — reflects Funk’s ambition throughout her life.

“I know that I have so much to overcome and achieve in my career as a pilot, but if I could inspire just a fraction of the people she [Funk] has inspired, I’ll know my life has been complete,” Serocki said.

At the landing, Serocki took a picture with Funk and the Flying Aggies. Serocki said she learned about Funk in college, but wishes she knew about her work at a younger age.

Serocki watched the launch this summer and has known about Funk, but she said nothing is like meeting her icon in person.

“I can’t even put into words, my heart is still like, pounding so quick,” Serocki said.

Like Serocki, Corinne Kissel, a nonprofit management sophomore and community outreach coordinator for the Flying Aggies, said when she saw Funk’s smile through the plane window, she could not believe Funk was in Stillwater.

Kissel grew up admiring aviation and joined the Flying Aggies to explore her fascination in the field. Although she is not a pilot, Kissel said Funk inspires her to stretch beyond her comfort zone, try new things and make things happen, even if doors to opportunities seem to be shut.

Although Kissel has been waiting for the arrival, she said once the whole Flying Aggies organization heard about Funk’s visit, it was thrilled to take part in the events.

“Truly words cannot describe how much she means not only to this organization, and this campus, and this school but to aviation as a whole,” Kissel said.

Anna Pope is a reporter covering agriculture and rural issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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