April 26, 2017 by Ernest B. Furguson
Florence Klingensmith had to work her way up to flying a Gee Bee. Inspired by a Lindbergh visit to Fargo, N.D., in 1927, she started taking lessons—and helped pay for them with sky diving exhibitions, which almost got her killed. Once licensed as a pilot, she persuaded local businessmen to buy a plane christened Miss Fargo to promote the town, and began breaking records. She easily cracked the unofficial women’s mark of 39 consecutive inside loops, but then Laura Ingalls set a new record of 344, then 850. Klingensmith finally topped her, landing exhausted after going around 1,078 times. That kind of grit got her into top races like the 1932 Nationals, where she won the Amelia Earhart Trophy. The next year, she was the only woman who entered the unlimited $10,000 Philips Trophy race at the Internationals at Chicago.
Her stubby, overpowered Gee Bee No. 7 seemed to be all engine as it whirled around the far pylon and streaked past the grandstand, reaching more than 220 mph between turns. Almost two-thirds of the way through the 100-mile closed course, Klingensmith was in the middle of the pack, ahead of four male pilots, when suddenly a strip of bright red fabric ripped away from a wing panel and floated to earth. For three miles, she fought to hold the Gee Bee steady. Then, at 350 feet, it nosed over and plunged to the ground. She apparently had tried to jump; her parachute was found tangled in the debris.
Klingensmith died because her plane’s owner, in his eagerness to win races, had installed a souped-up 450 hp engine in a craft designed for 215 hp. She was not at fault. Nevertheless, officials used her death as an excuse to bar women from competing against men in sanctioned air races.
That ruling would not last long. In protest, Earhart refused to fly movie star Mary Pickford to Cleveland to open the 1934 National Air Races as planned. Under such pressure, officials relented by 1936, opening the transcontinental Bendix Trophy race to all comers—and with restrictions lifted, women swept to convincing victory. The redoubtable Louise Thaden, flying with Blanche Noyes, finished first. Laura Ingalls, who earlier had flown across the Andes and circled South America, came in second.
Amelia Earhart, flying her twin-engine Lockheed Electra, placed fifth. In that same plane, she would wing out across the Pacific the following year on her way around the world, to be lost in an unsolved mystery that makes her still the most celebrated woman in aviation history.
Ernest B. Furgurson, a former Baltimore Sun correspondent, is the author of Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War.