Almost 90 years after Klingensmith’s death in an airplane crash, a student pilot has successfully rallied her community to give Klingensmith the recognition she should have earned with her success in air racing and setting aviation records.
“We need to celebrate her,” said Marisa Bengtson-Loerzel of Moorhead, Minnesota. “Our community needs to know who she is. She has such an inspiring story I wanted to get it out there.” Bengtson-Loerzal is a teacher who took flight lessons in the 1990s before work and family obligations took precedence. She hopes to resume her flight instruction this year or next.
Born in 1904, Klingensmith defied the societal expectations of her generation by riding a motorcycle. Seeing Charles A. Lindbergh touch down in Fargo, North Dakota—just across the river from Moorhead—made her want to become a pilot. She enrolled in auto mechanic school and took flying lessons. She earned the nickname “Tree Tops” when she became the first licensed woman pilot in North Dakota—there was no airport in Moorhead at the time, and so she “walked across the river” to Fargo to take her flying lessons, Bengtson-Loerzel said.
Klingensmith performed skydiving and stunts with other pilots, but she wanted her own airplane and persuaded local Fargo businesses to donate money toward the purchase of one in exchange for advertising space on it. In 1929 she bought a Monocoupe and joined 98 other women pilots in forming The Ninety-Nines, the international women’s pilot association whose charter members included Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, and Louise Thaden.
In 1931, Klingensmith performed 1,078 inside loops before an audience of 50,000 in Minneapolis, breaking the previous women’s record of 980. She also began competing against men and women in air races, and in 1932 she was the first winner of the Amelia Earhart Trophy.
Klingensmith was competing in the Frank Phillips Trophy Race outside Chicago in 1933, flying a Gee Bee Model Y Sportster that had been fitted with a Wright Whirlwind engine of double the original horsepower, according to Kermit Weeks’ Fantasy of Flight website. She had won second place in it in the Women’s Free-for-All at the Chicago International Races. However, on this day the airplane malfunctioned, and Klingensmith died in the ensuing crash.
Though the crash’s cause was not pilot error, the accident was blamed on Klingensmith’s gender, Bengtson-Loerzel said. “Instead of getting the hero’s reception that male pilots were getting, she was shipped home to Moorhead in a box,” she said.
A monument to Klingensmith was placed at her gravesite in 2015. Even so, Klingensmith is not as widely known as some of her aviation contemporaries, Bengtson-Loerzel said, noting that she learned about Klingensmith only after reading Keith O’Brien’s book Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History, which profiled five women aviators: Earhart, Klingensmith, Thaden, Ruth Nichols, and Ruth Elder.
“I hadn’t heard of [Klingensmith}, and as someone who grew up around airplanes, loving aviation, reading everything I can about the history of aviation…I should have known who she was,” Bengtson-Loerzel said. “Immediately after I read the book I knew I had to do something.”
She answered a call for proposals for a mural to be displayed in downtown Moorhead, and, working with local artists Cory Gillerstein and Jared Froeber of Upper Hand Signs, that came to fruition in 2019. The mural of Klingensmith is displayed at Main Ave. and Seventh St.
“But I knew that what would be the very best way to honor her was renaming our airport after her,” Bengtson-Loerzel said.
She approached the Moorhead Airport Commission and then Moorhead City Council. “Our community was very accepting, they loved this idea, the airport and city council passed it with flying colors,” she said. In March, the airport officially became known as Moorhead Municipal Florence Klingensmith Field, though it still appears as Moorhead Municipal Airport in AOPA’s Airport Directory. Funds are being raised to acquire new signage and a historical display for the airport office, Bengtson-Loerzel said, and a summer dedication ceremony is being planned.