Wally Funk and the Portal of the Folded Wings

Challenger/Columbia Shuttle Memorial greets visitors to the Portal. Portal, Wally & X-Prize photos by Ivor Dawson.

I first heard about the Portal of the Folded Wings from my friend, Gia Koontz who was the Portal Director when we met in 1998. Gia, an aviation historian, would tell me about where she worked –inside this huge marble arch that serves as a shrine, museum and burial site for 13 aviation pioneers! Check out Gia’s website for more information. http://www.portalofthefoldedwings.net/PAGES/history.html

The Portal is very old world and, at first glance, looks out of place in the otherwise low–keyed Valhalla Cemetery in Burbank CA —but no –this ornately sculptured domed arch is fittingly adjacent to Bob Hope Airport. Civilian and military pilots (and their spouses) lay side by side under this marvelous arch. Added to the shrine site is a large-scale mockup of the space shuttle installed in 2004 as a memorial to the crews of the Challenger and Columbia space tragedies. Friend and aviation pioneer, Wally Funk spoke at the dedication but I still couldn’t find the time to visit.

That would change when Wally told me that she was coming to Los Angeles and suggested that we meet at the Portal. Wally became famous as the youngest of the “Mercury 13”—thirteen women who qualified to become astronauts but had their dreams were deferred by NASA because they were women. On Pearl Harbor Day (December 7, 2011), I found Wally under the arch scoping out her eternal resting place – a plot next to her friend and mentor, Bobbi Trout. Bobbi was a popular female air racer in the late 1920’s who, along with Amelia Earhart, showed that women were just as good as men when it came to flying airplanes.

Wally where she’ll rest in peace (in Plot # 103) near her buddy, Bobbi Trout

Like Bobbi, Wally Funk was quick to show her prowess with airplanes. At 21, Wally was a good enough pilot to test to become an astronaut in a top-secret program conducted by Dr. Randy Lovelace, the man who tested the original seven Mercury astronauts. Later, Wally would shatter a glass ceiling by becoming the first female investigator of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) appointed by President Gerald Ford.

I became aware of Wally’s guts when she became the oldest astronaut candidate in the X-Prize competition that put the first private party into space in 2004. Not only was she gong to pursue her goal with an untried company (Interorbital Systems Inc.) but Wally also agreed to fly with the youngest applicant, a 17-year-old rookie whose quest was to become the ‘’First Teenager in Space’—Traveling Space Museum Protégé, Justin Houchin.

Justin has vivid memories of getting his first flying lesson from Wally when he arrived at Northwest Regional Airport in Roanoke Texas. Expecting to be a passenger on his first day, Justin was rattled when Wally taxied out and told him to “go ahead and take off!” Though “sweating bullets”. Justin regained his confidence due to Wally’s soothing voice and calm demeanor. He surprised himself by taking-off and maneuvering with minimal assistance by Wally. He even reported to the tower by parroting Wally. Later on in the flight, Justin wasn’t surprised when Wally told him to land by himself. Justin never dreamt that he would be landing an airplane on his first day— but he did it! He expected to do maybe 10% of the flying that day but it was more like 90%. “I did more with Wally on that one day than ten days of my formal flying lessons!” As Wally remembers it: “He came to fly and I let him!” A few months later, Justin would become an aviation pioneer himself becoming the youngest ever to fly a military jet (an Atlas Impala jet trainer) at the prestigious National Test Pilot School in Mojave Ca. (Thank you Lockheed-Martin for picking up the fuel tab!)

WJustin, inverted, rolls his jet over China Lake near Mojave CA. Photo by NTPS

Wally never made it to space in 2004 but in 2011, Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic asked her join their team and become a celebrity astronaut. Wally hopes to get her chance in space by 2013. FYI, Virgin Galactic CEO, George Whitesides was a former Traveling Space Museum volunteer!

After her business with the Portal, an impromptu lunch and reception was quickly staged at Rocky’s Restaurant at Whiteman Airport in Pacoima Ca. Several TSM associates were on hand and some of the pilots recognized her. She was greeted like a rock star! That really made her day. She called me three times to thank me!

Wally and Justin, and new friends: Gov. Bill Richardson & Sir Richard Virgin Galactic.

We parted after giving each other action items. I asked Wally to prep for a video conferencing interview that I will conduct for my new Teacher Workshop program. I want her on-camera describing the medical tests performed on her by Dr. Randy Lovelace as well as her meetings in Russia with Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly in space.

In return, Wally wants me to help her come up with a few choice words to put on her memorial plaque! Of course I am blown away by the honor and sobered by the realization that she’ll probably outlive most of us. Nevertheless, I’m betting that Wally makes it to heaven –one way or another!