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A lesser known Minnesotan aviation pioneer: Florence ‘Tree Tops’ Klingensmith

The first licensed female pilot in North Dakota and a pioneer of aviation, Florence ‘Tree Tops’ Klingensmith made a name for herself in air racing circuits.

Florence “Tree Tops” Klingensmith
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The first licensed female pilot in North Dakota and a pioneer of aviation, Florence “Tree Tops” Klingensmith made a name for herself in air racing circuits, winning several prizes and setting records. At a time when women were expected to stay at home, Klingensmith followed her own path.

Florence Gunderson was born on September 3, 1904, in Oakport Township, Minnesota, to Gust and Florence Gunderson. In addition to owning a small farm, Florence’s father, Gust, worked as a janitor and bus driver at the school Florence and her three siblings attended. A career change for Gust moved the family to Moorhead in 1918. Florence, a gutsy and athletic fourteen-year-old at the time, scandalized her neighbors as she motorcycled down Moorhead streets. When Florence was twenty-two, she met and married Charles Klingensmith. The marriage lasted for only a year and a half before ending in divorce.

When Charles A. Lindbergh touched down at the Hector Air Field in Fargo on August 26, 1927, Florence Klingensmith was there to witness the event. Watching him, she decided in that moment to become a pilot — a radical career choice for a woman at the time. The first licensed female pilot in the world had been France’s Raymonde de Laroche in 1910, but women had been taking to the skies for decades, since the earliest days of flight. Klingensmith wanted to join them.

In early 1928, Klingensmith started taking classes at an auto school in Fargo, North Dakota, and worked as a mechanic’s apprentice at Hector Field. These experiences gave her a broad knowledge of airplanes and enabled her to take flying lessons. In the same year, Klingensmith’s instructor asked her to be his stunt girl in area flying exhibitions; she agreed to take the job in exchange for more lessons.

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Klingensmith’s first skydive was in June of 1928 and nearly ended in disaster. She was unconscious when she hit the ground, but survived. After the accident, she was more determined than ever to get back in the air.

While she gained experience and knowledge with her stunt performances and lessons, Klingensmith was not making money. She realized she needed her own plane if she wanted to make a living as a pilot. She persuaded local Fargo businessmen to donate money for a plane in exchange for free advertising space on it. In April 1929, she bought a Monocoupe she named “Miss Fargo.” She earned a new nickname, “Tree Tops,” when she became the first licensed female pilot in North Dakota. In 1929, Klingensmith joined ninety-eight other female pilots to form the Ninety-Nines, an organization of female pilots still in operation in 2017.

Now licensed, Klingensmith set out to break records. On April 19, 1930, she broke the women’s record for inside loops, completing 143. Since no officials witnessed the loops, however, the record stood at 46. It was later set at 980 by Laura Ingalls. On June 22, 1931, with 50,000 spectators and officials watching, Klingensmith flew for over four hours and completed 1,078 loops at Wold Chamberlain Field, an air field in Minneapolis. In addition to air shows, Klingensmith competed against men and women in various races throughout the country. In 1932, she was the first winner of the Amelia Earhart Trophy.

On September 4, 1933, Klingensmith was in fourth place in the Frank Phillips Trophy Race outside Chicago. After completing her eighth lap, Klingensmith’s aircraft malfunctioned due to stress from the race. The Bee Gee Model Y Senior Sportster, modified by Klingensmith, was overpowered. She veered off course and flew steadily for several miles before the plane nose-dived from an altitude of 350 feet. Klingensmith was killed on impact. A parachute tangled in the fuselage indicated that she had attempted to evacuate. Even though her death was due to mechanical failure, not pilot error, the crash was used as an excuse to try to bar women from flying in future races.

Klingensmith was brought home to Minnesota for burial. Her funeral was attended by dozens of her fellow pilots, and the Fargo businessmen who had financed her first plane served as her pallbearers. In June 2015, a monument to Klingensmith was placed at her gravesite.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.