MOORHEAD — Florence Klingensmith was a woman ahead of — actually, above — her time.
The female aviator, called an aviatrix in the late 1920s and early '30s, grew up just north of Moorhead and started her flying career with the Fargo Aeronautics Club. She gained national fame as a stuntwoman-turned-aviator whose daring tendencies were matched by her boundless ambition.
Nearly 85 years ago, Klingensmith earned acclaim as the first woman to participate in an air race against men, flying at top speed around pylons in Chicago during Labor Day weekend air races.
Her plane malfunctioned and Klingensmith crashed. She died just one day before she would've turned 29.
Klingensmith is one of five women lauded in the New York Times best-seller "Fly Girls" by Keith O'Brien, which published last month. Fly girls weren't just female flyers, O'Brien writes — they were "young women who refused to live by the old rules, appearing bold and almost dangerous as a result."
When O'Brien started his research, he says he really only knew about one female aviator, Amelia Earhart, and was surprised to find out there were other women flying with her.
"And they were just as bold, just as brave as she was," O'Brien said in a July phone interview. "And they were arguably more talented in a cockpit, and Florence was one of them. She was more skilled pilot, at least when it came to speed racing."
So how did a girl who grew up in a farm family in rural Oakport Township end up as a famed female flyer?
A perceived personal snub and a lot of gumption.
From the ground up
Mark Peihl, senior archivist at the Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County, first learned about Klingensmith in the late 1980s, so he picked up a phone book and started calling people he knew she had gone to school with at Oak Mound.
He learned Klingensmith was a nice girl, attractive and sweet, and she was high-spirited. Her family moved to Moorhead in 1918, and a classmate recalled that she wanted to try a ski jump, but had to be dissuaded from doing so because she only had flimsy leather straps to hold the skis to her feet. She learned to ride a motorcycle and later joked that riding one offered her first "flying" experience.
In August 1927, when Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis stopped in Fargo, Klingensmith was personally offended when he didn't wave back to her during the parade in his honor. She decided she would show him by becoming a pilot, Peihl says.
Shortly after, she began taking classes at Hanson Mechanical School and enlisted an instructor at the Fargo Aeronautics Club, Vernon Roberts, the grandson of Fargo pioneers Charles and Matilda Roberts.
In April 1929, she became the first licensed female pilot in North Dakota and bought a plane she named "Miss Fargo." That same year, along with the other women featured in "Fly Girls" — Earhart, Ruth Elder, Ruth Nichols and Louise Thaden — Klingensmith helped found the Ninety-Nines, an organization of women pilots still active today.
In 1931, Klingensmith set a world record for inside loops as more than 50,000 spectators watched. She earned the first Amelia Earhart Trophy the next year by flying nearly 200 mph in six laps around a nearly 4-mile course over Cleveland.
Klingensmith, nicknamed "Tree Tops," was at the top of her game.
A fly girl falls
According to "Fly Girls," Klingensmith received a personal invitation to the 1933 Phillips Trophy air races in Chicago — an all-male event — by the organizer, Cliff Henderson. He spelled her name wrong, but Klingensmith ignored the affront and signed on immediately.
She'd recently borrowed a Gee Bee plane that was "red and white and blazing fast." She started the race strong and was flying in third place when the plane's right wing failed. A skilled aviator, Klingensmith immediately flew off course, away from the crowds and aimed for the sky so she could make an emergency jump.
She never did.
Klingensmith's plane crashed Sept. 4, 1933, and she was brought back to Moorhead for burial at Oak Mound Cemetery.
Despite her aviation prowess and the plane's clear culpability in the accident, Klingensmith's death initiated a firestorm of gender-related issues and ended up serving as justification to keep women from flying in air races with men. Investigators even went so far as to ask whether she'd been questioned about her menstrual cycle.
"The way she was treated, the way they handled her death in Chicago, blaming it on her, effectively, questioning her stamina, questioning her abilities is infuriating, it's wrong, it's disrespectful to not just a great woman, but a great aviator, a really — in my opinion — great iconic American who's been forgotten," O'Brien says.
At the time of Klingensmith's death, she was among a great many daring pilots — both men and women — who risked their lives to make their mark in history. Her Sept. 7 funeral was attended by "numerous aviators and many citizens of Moorhead and Fargo" as well as "members of the aviation fraternity in all sections of the country," according to a Moorhead Daily News article.
A representative of Frank Phillips, president of the company that sponsored the fatal race, attended with a floral arrangement in the shape of wings positioned near Klingensmith's coffin. Pallbearers were the businessmen who'd provided financial support for her endeavors, including Norman D. Black, second-generation owner and publisher of The Forum.
Once laid to rest, Klingensmith faded from the national memory; the world slowly forgot that Earhart wasn't alone in her aviation accomplishments, and was actually just one of many in a pantheon of female flyers.
"(Florence) was, without question, one of the most talented female aviators of her time; she was particularly bold and daring, and she would never let men try to put her in her place, try to make her play by their rules, the rules of that era," O'Brien says. "She was going to live her own life and race her own race and do what she knew she could do ... We can't change what happened in 1933, but we can remember her for the person she was and we should remember her."