“Let’s Go to Space Camp,” Wally said

Wally Funk was my flight instructor. I had been taking flying lessons from her for a month. The year was 1991.

I met Wally at Women in Aviation (WAI) in St. Louis in early March that year. Joan Hrubec, administrator of the International Women’s Air and Space Museum (IWASM), Centerville, Ohio, and I drove to St. Louis for the conference.  I worked for Joan and IWASM as a PR person of sorts. She hired me to help the museum become better known in the southwest Ohio.

Why? Because until six months before, I had been the editor of the local twice-weekly newspaper, the Centerville-Bellbrook Times. I “knew the territory” — Dayton’s south suburbs, Centerville, Kettering, Oakwood, Springboro, etc.

Sarah (left), Wally (right)

Joan Was a Walking ‘Women of Aviation’ Encyclopedia

I went to work for Joan in January 1990, so 1991 was my second WAI. Under Joan’s very knowledgable tutelage in the subject, I was now well-versed in the history of women in aviation, particularly American women pilots. I was going to do a talk and slide presentation for IWASM on that subject. Wally, a well-known veteran pilot and flight instructor, also was one of the speakers at the conference. Everybody knew Wally. Joan introduced me to her.

“You should get Wally to teach you to fly,” said Joan. “She’s living out in north Dayton now.”

My logbook says I had my first lesson on April 1, 1991. We spent the hour on ground school instruction. On April 2, I learned to pre-flight, execute the checklist, and taxi the two-seater Cessna 152, tail number N757HJ. I made two takeoffs and landings. On April 5, I earned a “star” for performing a flawless pre-flight. Then we flew for an hour. I did some 360 degree turns, learned to trim the airplane, did pattern flying, and made two takeoffs and landings.

I was hooked. I was on my way!!! But, sadly, I was NOT a natural. A bit long-in-tooth to pick it up quickly and decidedly over-cautious, I struggled. Landing a tricycle gear airplane eluded me, but I persisted! A month into my flying, Wally brought up Space Camp. I knew Space Camp was part of the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. I thought it was for kids.

Space Camp Is for Big Kids Too!

Well it WAS for kids, but it also was for adults who, now grownup kids and thoroughly engrossed in the Space Program, also wanted to go to Space Camp. “Space Camp is located at One Tranquility Base, Huntsville, Alabama 35805. Huntsville is home to the second-largest research park in the United States and the fourth largest in the world. America’s space program was born here,” says its modern-day website.

I had watched all the launches in the ’60s. On July 20, 1969, our family sat glued to the 17-inch black and white screen in our living room. We — my mom and dad, my husband, Rick, and my two small boys, Jim 2 ½ and Chuck, 11 months — all watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon.

Seven months earlier, on Christmas Eve 1968, we had listened as Apollo 8 orbited the Moon ten times before returning to Earth.

My Husband Thought I Was Nuts!

So Wally and I went to Space Camp. My husband thought I was nuts. My now college-age kids thought it was cool!

Space Camp was full of adventures and Wally and I ate it up. We bought the blue coveralls the astronauts wore. (See photo above). I later donated mine to IWASM, where it is remains, today, proudly on display.

Our team — five women and four men (See photo) — went through simulated “space-flight” exercises in a “space vehicle.” We were treated to movies in 3-D — or was it Surround Sound? Meals in the mess hall. We slept on bunks in dorms. I remember Wally claimed the upper bunk before I could. It reminded me of being at camp when I was a teenager. In fact for three days, we were teenagers again!

Driving from Dayton to Huntsville and back, we stopped and spent the night with my mother in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the family home. Wally and my Mom hit it off! (See photo.) Enroute back to Dayton, we also stopped in Nashville to visit my aunt in a retirement home. We wore our blue astronaut coveralls, everyone stared at us. My aunt told me they all asked, “Are they really astronauts?”

But I Never Soloed!

Between April 1 and September 1, 1991, I logged a total of 18.5 hours with Wally, but I never soloed. Consistently making good landings continued to elude me.

Wally moved back to Texas that fall and turned me over to Wendy, a young woman instructor she knew. Then Wendy’s husband was transferred. I quit flying.

I tried again in 2009. I soloed!!! — in an Aeronca Champ. Turned out taildraggers and I were a match!!! I did my cross-country in November 2010, passed my check ride spring of 2011 and got my license.

Wally and I see each other annually at the Women in Aviation, International, conference. And, having now acquired my license, I joined the Ninety-Nines, the Organization of Women Pilots. Now, we also meet at Ninety-Nines events. It’s old home week!!! Fond memories for both of us.

More about Wally in my next blog!

Thank you for reading my blog. And check out my books about women pilots on Amazon.

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  1. You rock, Sarah! I had no idea you were a pilot when I first met you at Pen Women! You are a woman of many talents. I am impressed! Hope you keep flying and writing ✍️!!

    Warm Regards,

  2. Katie, GREAT to hear from you, and THANK YOU!!! I wanted to learn to fly when I read about Amelia Earhart at age 13. It took a long time to get there, but I did it!!! Thanks to Wally, to all the WASP who encouraged me, and finally, Emerson Stewart III who put me in the taildragger Champ. I dearly loved that little airplane!!!
    Sarah R

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