On August 27, 1927, Charles Lindberg touched down at Hector Field in Fargo to thousands of cheering fans. These days it’s hard to imagine the electrifying impact “Lindy’s” solo flight over the Atlantic the previous spring had had on the country. For years afterwards the newspapers were filled daily with stories of daring aviators’ exploits. Lindberg inspired hundreds of young Americans to become fliers, and not all of them were men.
In the 1920s women made great strides in many previously all male vocations, even aviation. One young woman in the crowd that day at Hector was a gutsy former Clay County schoolgirl named Florence Gunderson Klingensmith.
Florence was born September 3, 1904, on her parents’ small Oakport Township farm. She attended Oakmound School with her sister Myrtle, and brothers George and Roy. Her father, Gust, worked at Oakmound as janitor and school bus driver. Image: Florence Klingensmith, pioneer woman aviator.
Recently I talked with several of Florence’s childhood friends. Every one of them remembered her as a nice girl, a very attractive girl, and a daring girl who was always ready to try anything. Ingvald Stensland says the whole family was like that. “Ya, they was full of spetakkel, those kids. But they never hurt anything.” Florence especially was “A wild one” laughs Clarence Simonson. “She was a great sports fan and ready to try anything.”
In 1918 the Gundersons moved to Moorhead. Florence didn’t slow down a bit. Marion Gillespie lived a few blocks away on 10th Street and was a close friend: “Oh, she was a real live wire, real daring…. We’d run out and jump on the back of the street car when it passed and ride to each others’ house.”
At a very young age Florence’s devil-may-care attitude was nearly her undoing. Fellow Moorhead High student Oliver Sondrall remembers, “I used to do some skiing at the [ski jumping] scaffold near the Moorhead Country Club. Florence wanted to try it too. When we got to the top of the scaffold we found she didn’t have any bindings on her skis! [Just a couple of leather straps.] My friend and I had to talk her out of it. She would have been killed!”
In Moorhead her energy found an outlet – motorcycles – fast ones. Evelyn Gesell: “Oh, you bet she rode motorcycles! I think she was the only girl we knew who did. Some of us more conservative girls, I guess, used to look a bit askance when she would race through the streets on her motorcycle.”
The Fargo Forum later claimed she got her first experience with flying on a motorcycle. With her brother George riding on the gas tank, “A tire blew out when the speedometer showed better than 70 miles an hour and Florence went sailing through the air”
Florence left school in her junior year and went to work as a motorcycle and truck delivery person, eventually working for The Pantorium, a Fargo dry cleaner. It may have been there that she met Charles Klingensmith. They were married June 25, 1927, but it was a short union. Within a year and a half she was on her own. Frank Vyzralek, in a biography of Florence writes that Charles “enters and exits her life almost as a shadow, leaving behind little impression beyond his surname, which Florence retained to the end of her life.”
Two months after their wedding, Lindberg paid his visit and Florence decided to become a pilot. In early 1928 she attended ground electrical classes at Hanson Auto and Electrical School in Fargo. “A lone girl among four hundred boys;’ she later wrote. She worked as a mechanics’ apprentice at Fargo’s Hector Field, learning planes inside and out and taking flying lessons when she could afford to.
That summer, her flight instructor E.M. Canfield needed a stunt girl to accompany him on a series of area flying exhibitions. Florence agreed to be that stunt person in return for lessons and she started a new adventure – skydiving.
On June 14, after some brief instruction, Florence bailed out of Canfield’s plane some 1700 feet above Hector Field. Her brother George, who had had jump training at Kelly Field in Texas witnessed the jump. It was a wild ride. “She pendulumed worse than any ‘chute jumper [I’d] ever seen at Kelly.” Florence was unconscious when she hit the ground but undeterred. Later jumps at Bismarck and Brainerd were more successful.
The travel and flying were a great experience for Florence, but she made little money. To make a living flying she needed her own plane. The following winter she literally went door to door to persuade local business men to provide money for a plane. In return, Florence would promote Fargo and carry advertisements at fairs, flying meets and air races. Her persistence paid off. As Fargo laundry owner William T. Lee said, “If you’re willing to risk your neck, I’ll risk my money.” Norman Black, William Stern, J. K. Roth Herbst and others agreed and provided $3,000.
In April, 1929, Florence traveled to the Monocoupe Airplane Factory in Moline, Ill. where she purchased her first plane. She flew it back to Hector and christened it “Miss Fargo.” Florence had a new name too, “Tree-Tops,” probably given to her by Phobe Omlie or one of the other top fliers she met and received instructions from at Moline. In June she became the first licensed woman pilot in North Dakota and started her aviation career. That summer she barnstormed county fairs, worked as operations manager at Hector and flew in her first race where she took fourth.
By spring she was ready for another challenge. Mildred Kaufman of St. Louis had established a woman’s record for inside loops of 46. Florence figured she could do better. On April 19, 1930, with hundreds of onlookers lining the roads around Hector she smashed the record with 143 loops. Unfortunately, no members of the National Aeronautics Association were present. Bad weather prevented Florence from making the record official later that spring and in May, Laura Ingalls completed first 344, then 850 loops.
Florence spent the summer in Minneapolis doing commercial flying. In September American Eagle Airlines appointed her Northern Division Traffic Manager, and those duties kept her on the ground.
Laura Ingalls, meanwhile, had raised her loop record to 980. But by summer Florence was back in the cockpit. On June 22, 1931 before more than 50,000 spectators (and NA.A officials) Florence took off from Wold Chamberlain Field at Minneapolis. Four and one-half hours later, “A trifle groggy and gagged by gas fumes,” she touched down with a record of 1,078 loops firmly in hand.
She taught a women’s aviation class, did radio addresses on flying and with partner Jack V. Kipp, spent weekends giving 5-minute plane rides for a dollar. She also began racing in earnest. At the 1931 National Air Races in Cleveland, against the best women fliers in the country, she won four events and walked away with $4,200 in prize money. At the 1932 Nationals she collected the most coveted prize in women’s aviation, the Amelia Earhart Trophy. But racing against women was not enough for Florence. She also took second racing against men in a race for planes with engines smaller than 510 cubic inches.
In 1933 Florence entered the $10,000 Frank Phillips Trophy Race at the Nationals in Chicago. She was the first woman to do so. The Thompson was a 100 mile, 12 lap race around pylons. The race was open to planes with no limits on engine size. The best pilots in America competed.
Florence flew a bright red Gee Bee Sportster owned by Arthur Knapp of Jackson, Mich. The fabric covered craft’s original 220 horse power engine was replaced with a souped up 670 hp motor. The overpowered engine added an element of danger, but Florence was confident. The Chicago Daily News quoted her as saying just before the race, “I don’t know that I will win, but I do know I will place. The plane is fast enough and I can fly it.”
Late in the afternoon of September 4, one day after her 29th birthday, Florence was flying a beautiful race, in fourth place ahead of four male fliers, averaging over 200 mph through the first eight laps. Then, just as she was passing the grand stands, a bit of red fabric fluttered down from the fuselage. The stresses of the race were apparently too much for the overpowered light craft. Florence immediately veered off the course and flew steady and level straight south to a plowed field a couple of miles away. Then the crowd gasped as the plane flipped over and nosed into the earth from 350 feet up. Florence died instantly. Apparently she had attempted to bail out. Her parachute was found tangled in the fuselage.
Even though the crash resulted from structural failure and not pilot error, Florence’s death was later used as an excuse to bar women from competing with men. Officials banned women from entering the Bendix Air Race at the 1934 Nationals. Women protested. Amelia Earhart’s method of protest was to refuse to fly actress Mary Pickford to Cleveland to open the air races. The women held their own air meet in Ohio.
Florence’s body was shipped back home for the funeral. She was well loved in the flying fraternity. Dozens of pilots from all over the country joined hundreds of local friends at the funeral in Fargo’s First Presbyterian Church. Floral tributes included one arrangement in the shape of her first plane “Miss Fargo.” The businessmen who had bank rolled Florence’s first plane served as pallbearers. She was interned at Oakmound Cemetery, a few miles from where she was born. Rev. J.C. Brown, “The Flying Parson,” said “If she could speak to us now she would tell us not to lose faith in aviation because of the tragedy that ended her flying career. She would say it was not usual, but in the pursuit of the thrills upon which she thrived.”