Minnesota may be known for its bitterly cold winters, delicious hot dish and an abundance of lakes and waterways to explore, but did you also know its the home of several world-famous pilots? That’s right. Aviators of all types have come from the Gopher State – several of whom are world-record setters that left an indelible mark on the history of aviation. In the spirit of celebrating aviation within our state, let’s explore five famous pilots from Minnesota.
1) Walter Bullock
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN
Lived: 1899 – 1986
If there’s a “Father of Aviation” for Minnesota, Walter Bullock may be more qualified to deserve that title than anyone else from this state. In 1916, as the youngest person in the country to obtain a pilot’s license at 17 years old, Bullock completed training at the Curtiss School in Virginia. He then went on to purchase his own Curtiss aircraft to accompany him on tours around the country, showing-off his flight skills to crowds around the country. This led him, along with fellow Minnesota pilot Speed Holman, to become one of the first Northwest Airways pilots in 1927.
During World War II, Bullock flew for the Northwest Ice Research Program in the Northern Region. After the war, he competed in races, boasting a ninth-place finish at the 1946 Bendix air race. Bullock continued to his aviation pursuits well into his 80s, building and rebuilding pioneer aircraft until the ripe old age of 83.
2) Charles Lindbergh
Hometown: Little Falls, MN
Lived: 1902 – 1974
One of the most famous pilots in the history of aviation is a Minnesota native. While he may have been born at his grandparents home in Detroit, Charles Lindbergh and his parents returned to their small farm in Little Falls, MN just five weeks after he was born. The famed aviator, who was the first to complete a solo transatlantic flight in May 1927, lived in the town until he graduated from Little Falls High School on June 5, 1918. Once he graduated, the young Lindbergh headed to the University of Wisconsin to pursue engineering.
In just two years, however, the future pilot of the Spirit of St. Louis gave up his studies in order to pursue a full-time career as a wing-walker, parachute jumper and barnstormer. After a stint in the San Antonio Army flying school and as an airmail pilot, Lindbergh then convinced business owners in St. Louis to fund his attempt at a transatlantic solo flight. Once he successfully completed the flight, he instantly became the most important aviation figure in the world at that time.
The life of Charles Lindbergh continued on its extraordinary path after his famous flight, including an 82-city tour of the U.S., kidnapping scandal with his child, an appointment by Eisenhower as Brigadier General during World War II and a Pulitzer Prize award for his book, Spirit of St. Louis.
3) Speed Holman
Hometown: Bloomington, MN
Lived: 1898 – 1931
Born in Bloomington on December 27, 1898, Speed Holman is known for his work with Northwest Airlines, gaining notoriety by becoming the fourth person in the world to perform the outside loop maneuver, and first to do so in a commercial aircraft. In 1918, Holman offered to work as a mechanic in exchange for flying lessons with another famous aviator on our list, Walter Bullock. Holman’s first pilot’s license, issued in 1927, was signed by Orville Wright.
Unfortunately, Holman died during a performance accident in 1931. His funeral is still the largest in state history, with a hundred thousand people turning out along the funeral route and at the cemetery. And his presence is still very much alive in the city – Holman Field, St. Paul Downtown Airport is named in his honor and he’s also an inductee in the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame.
4) Florence “Tree Tops” Klingensmith
Hometown: Oakport Township, MN
Lived: 1904 – 1933
While she may have learned how to fly in neighboring North Dakota – being the first female to obtain her pilot’s license in the state – Florence Klingensmith spent her younger years growing up in the Moorhead area. Licensed in 1928, earning her the nickname “Tree Tops”, Klingensmith’s instructor asked her to be a stunt girl in local flying exhibitions, which she agreed to. In 1929, Klingensmith joined ninety-eight other female pilots to form the 99s, an organization of female pilots, still in operation today. In June of 1931, 50,000 spectators and officials watched Klingensmith at Wold-Chamberlain Field in Minneapolis fly for more than four hours and set an inner-loop maneuver record of 1,078 loops.
Then a record-setting pilot, Klingensmith switched her focus to air racing, where her skills made national headlines. She placed well in several races at the National Air Races at Cleveland in 1932. The next year, she raced in the prestigious Phillips Trophy Race for Women, however, her GeeBee aircraft failed while in the air. She was unable to bail out and went down with her plane.
5) Max Conrad
Hometown: Winona, MN
Lived: 1903 – 1979
Due to his hard-working and intense personality, Max Conrad came to be known as “The Flying Grandfather” by Minnesotans. As an aviator, he set nine official light plane world records, three of which still stand to this day. In 1952, he was awarded the Louis Blériot medal and the Harmon Trophy. Later in his life, Conrad recorded well over 200 solo ocean crossings, across both the Atlantic and Pacific, as well as attempting other record-breaking flights. His most ambitious was a flight around the world via the poles. His journey across the north pole went well, but he ran into problems and had to abandon his plane at the south pole when it suffered engine problems.
Not only was Conrad an accomplished pilot, but he was also responsible for what is today known as Winona Municipal Airport (named Max Conrad Field in his honor). As a young man, he opened his own flight school, operating from a farm strip that is now occupied by the Winona Airport.
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