Today I flew with one of aviation’s legends.
She was racing in (and winning) powder puff derbies when my parents were kids. She was one of the thirteen women trained for the space program in the sixties. The one, the only, Wally Funk.
I met her as a fellow Ninety-Nine at my first organizational event last night and her first question to me after the formalities of names and handshakes was “why haven’t we flown together yet?” She was flabbergasted we had been hanging around the same airport and not run into each other. I said I’d be delighted to go up with her sometime and in the blink of an eye she had everything arranged for us to go up the next morning.
Today, she strolled into the cafe in cargo pants and a long-sleeved flannel shirt saying hi to everyone from the guys at the front table to the cooks in the window. Everyone knows Wally. Her lean frame, bobbed silver hair and outgoing personality are unmistakable. She has that gumption that I suspect all of the original Ninety-Nines had in the days before it was appropriate for women to be pilots.
We flew my first high wing, a Cessna 172. Among an impressive list of credentials, Wally is a CFI and air safety investigator so the pre-flight inspection included more than the usual fuel, oil and body checks. It also entailed an outline of an airplane’s nine lead weights, all nuts and bolts with cotter pins and the hollow and dense sounds an airplane should make when you knock on it in various places.
Wally’s approach was to teach me to fly without the use of instruments or avionics. A red pen mark on my windshield was my horizon, a “does the engine sound right?” approach to the throttle was employed, and all altitudes were referenced in terms of how it made my butt feel. The compass was helpful, but she wanted me to orient myself using high lines (that means power lines, kids) and roads and landmarks I could recognize below. On my third touch and go at a neighboring airport it occurred to me I should ask about how to use the flaps. “I never use flaps, honey. Don’t believe in ’em,” she replied.
I had a rare and wonderful peek into the world of aviation before modern avionics. When pilots had to listen to their craft to know if something was wrong. When planes were very basic flying machines. When the way to know you were flying South was by looking at the sun and the roads below. I want to get my instrument rating, but today I learned the importance of knowing how to fly should all of your instruments go on the fritz. Flying by what you see, hear and feel connects you to those early aviators that had only their wings to lift them and the stars to guide them. Before the days of radios and altimeters and false horizons. I am lucky for the chance to go up with this pilot.