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Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Florence Gunderson Klingensmith and a Killer Airplane

     She flew the Gee-Bee racing airplane which was perhaps one of the most recognized and unique air racers ever built. And, at the time it was the fastest and most dangerous airplane ever built. 
     The first, the Model Z, was built in Springfield, Massachusetts by the Granville Brothers Aircraft in 1931 and was followed in 1932 by the Model R1 and R2 Super Sportsters. 
     All three of the difficult to operate machines had crashed and killed two men by 1933. The first, may have been caused by the pilot fitting a larger engine, the second was pilot error in landing and the third crash was caused by the second owner fitting larger fuel tanks. 
     The airplane was billed as "the fastest and most maneuverable licensed airplane for its horsepower in the United States" and it kept up to its name winning the 1932 race for pilot Jimmy Doolittle and setting a new world land plane speed record of 295.8 miles per hour. It also had a reputations as being the most dangerous airplane ever built. The Gee Bee Sportsters soon became a prized possession and were frequently shown off at airshows by their owners, attracting much attention wherever they appeared. 

     The planes had a long history of crashes from the beginning. The aircraft had a very peculiar design characterized by a thick fuselage, low-set monoplane wings and lack of a conventional tail assembly. The airframe was essentially built around the massive radial piston engine mounted at the extreme forward of the design. The cockpit was located very far aft, just in front of the vertical stabilizer, in order to give the racing pilot better vision while making crowded pylon turns. However, his extreme rearward placement allowed the forward fuselage to block all forward-low views over and out past the engine. Similarly, the small cockpit window areas forced the pilot to work harder than most. 
     The Gee Bee Model R also had a natural tendency to lift, allowing for the racer to make fast turns around pylons while maintaining or gaining altitude as opposed to losing it. This design, although beneficial, provided for some deadly flying experiences for many pilots. The airplane soon earned a reputation for being dangerous to fly. The small control surfaces, steering difficulties and unforgiving flight characteristics made sure that only the most experienced pilots could fly it, and even so, it killed many of them. 
     Florence Gunderson Klingensmith (September 3, 1904 – September 4, 1933), also known as “Tree Tops”, was one of them. She was first licensed female pilot in North Dakota and a pioneer of aviation. At a time when women were expected to be homemakers, she made a name for herself in air racing circuits, winning several prizes and setting records. 
     She was born in Oakport Township, Minnesota where her parents owned a small farm and her father also worked as a janitor and school bus driver at the school Florence and her three siblings attended. 
     The family to Moorhead, Minnesota in 1918 where the 14-year-old Florence scandalized the neighbors by racing her motorcycle around the town’s streets. She was married to Charles Klingensmith at the age of 22; the marriage lasted for only a year and a half before ending in divorce. 
     When Charles Lindbergh landed in Fargo, North Dakota on August 26, 1927, she witnessed the event and decided right then to become a pilot, a radical decision for a woman at the time. 
     In early 1928, Klingensmith started taking classes at an auto school in Fargo, North Dakota, and worked as a mechanic’s apprentice at the air field.  These experiences gave her a broad knowledge of airplanes and she began taking flying lessons. The same years her instructor asked her to be his stunt girl in area flying exhibitions; she agreed to take the job in exchange for more lessons. 
     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 was gaining experience, she was not making money and 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 the nickname, “Tree Tops,” when she became the first licensed female pilot in North Dakota. She then 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. 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. 
      At the same tiem 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 the eighth lap, Klingensmith’s aircraft malfunctioned due to stress from the race. 
    The plane was a Bee Gee Model Y Senior Sportster had been modified by Klingensmith and was overpowered. She veered off course and flew steadily for several miles before the plane nose-dived from an altitude of 350 feet, killing her instantly. A parachute tangled in the fuselage indicated that she had attempted to bail out. The crash was used as an excuse to try to bar women from flying in future races. 
     Klingensmith’s funeral in Minnesota for burial 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 grave site.

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