Author: C. V. Glines
Source: Aviation History Manazine
St. Petersburg, Florida, is not generally considered a city that can boast of an aviation "first." But on January 1, 1914, the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line was born there--the world's first scheduled airline using winged aircraft. A plaque on the entrance to St. Petersburg International Airport proclaims: "The Birthplace of Scheduled Air Transportation."
Traveling in that first passenger airplane made of wood, fabric and wire was a far cry from flying in today's comfortable, air-conditioned airliner. From all accounts, however, those first airline flights were not so bad, provided you did not mind sitting out in the breeze with water spraying in your face. Passengers sat on a wooden seat in the hull of a two-place seaplane that did not have a windshield and rarely flew more than five feet above the water. That is the way it was on that momentous day in sunny Florida only a decade after Orville and Wilbur Wright made their historic first flights at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
The aircraft in St. Petersburg was a Benoist (pronounced Ben-wah or Ben-weest) Model 14, built by St. Louis manufacturer Thomas W. Benoist. Best known for the sparking batteries and automobile self-starters he manufactured, Benoist also built 17 different models of landplanes and seaplanes between 1910 and 1917. His aircraft advertisement claimed: "My plane is figured down to the last equation, and improved up to the second. Every nut, bolt, wire, wood member, and piece of cloth is examined, tried and tested before it goes into our machines. Some others may be built as good, but none are built better, because we use the best of everything." An early aviation visionary, he said he often "dreamed of the skies filled with air lanes carrying the world's passenger and freight traffic."
The pilot on that historic January 1914 flight was Antony H. Jannus, a Benoist test pilot and instructor who had carried Captain Albert Berry aloft to make the first parachute jump from an airplane on March 1, 1912. Jannus flew a number of exhibitions demonstrating Benoist planes throughout the Midwest and was a contestant at a Chicago air meet in September 1912. Later that month, he established an American passenger-carrying record by taking three men with him on a 10-minute flight. On November 6, 1912, flying an early model Benoist on a single float, Jannus and J.D. Smith, his mechanic, left Omaha for New Orleans in an attempt to set a distance record for winged aircraft. Although it took six weeks to make the 1,973 mile trip because of stops for exhibitions, a near-disastrous fire, repairs and a bout with appendicitis, Jannus received wide acclaim in the newspapers as "the pioneer flying-boat pilot of the world." Shortly thereafter, he was credited with setting a "continuous flight with passenger" record by flying the 251 miles from Paducah, Ky., to St. Louis in four hours, 15 minutes.
Jannus, who was born in Washington, D.C., in 1889, had been employed by the Emerson Marine Engine Co. in Alexandria, Va. He had been sent to the airfield at College Park, Md., in November 1910 to install a marine engine in a modified Curtiss-type airplane with Farman landing gear, made by Frederick Fox and Rexford Smith, and was instantly obsessed with learning to fly. He began flying after receiving only cursory instructions and was soon making cross-country flights at altitudes up to 300 feet. Jannus flew several times from the Polo Grounds in Washington and made some air-to-ground radio tests for the Signal Corps. In July 1911, he traveled to St. Louis, where he was hired by Benoist as a flying instructor. Roger, his older brother, a graduate of Lehigh University, also was caught up in the excitement of flying. He later joined Tony at the Benoist factory and took lessons from him.
The driving force behind the St. Petersburg Tampa Airboat Line was Percival Elliot Fansler, a Florida sales representative for Kahlenberg Brothers, a Wisconsin manufacturer of diesel engines for fishing boats. He became fascinated with Benoist's progress in aircraft design and manufacture. He recalled later: "My appetite for speed was whetted by my experiences in racing boats. Having heard that Tony Jannus had made his famous trip down the Mississippi in a flying boat, I started correspondence with Tom [Benoist]. After receiving two or three letters that dealt with the details and capabilities of the boat, the idea popped into my head that instead of monkeying around with the thing to give 'jazz' trips, I would start a real commercial [air]line from somewhere to somewhere else. My experience in Florida led me to conclude that a line could be operated between St. Petersburg and Tampa. The distance was about 23 miles--some 15 of which were along the shore of Tampa Bay, and the remainder over open water. I wrote to Tom about the scheme and he became immediately enthusiastic."
Fansler went to Tampa in late November 1913 but found no one there interested in issuing a contract for an airline franchise. On December 4, he went across Tampa Bay to St. Petersburg, then a city of only about 9,000 people during the winter months. "They thought I had a mighty clever idea," he wrote later, "but they didn't believe there was any such thing as a flying boat. I talked a group of a dozen men into putting up a guarantee of $100 each, and the Board of Trade came in with a like amount."
Fansler immediately wired Benoist to come to St. Petersburg. On December 17, 1913, Benoist signed the world's first airline contract for heavier-than-air planes--10 years to the day after the Wright brothers had first flown successfully at Kitty Hawk. (Delag, a German airline using dirigibles, operated a scheduled route between Freidrichshafen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Leipzig, Potsdam and Dresden from 1910 to 1914 and carried 37,000 passengers without mishap. German historians concede that the schedule was rarely kept.)
The agreement called for a cash subsidy of $2,400 from the city of St. Petersburg, but only if the Benoist company supplied planes and pilots and maintained two scheduled flights daily between St. Petersburg and Tampa, six days a week for three months. Regular service was to begin on January 1, 1914. For each day that the scheduled flights were made on time, the city guaranteed to pay $40 a day through January and $25 a day in February and March.
The day after the contract signing, the St. Petersburg Times reported that "a fleet of hydro-aeroplanes" would make regular trips between St. Petersburg and Tampa, and predicted that the service would "prove to be of great benefit to the city." When queried about the safety of the operation, Fansler said, "there is no more liability of accident in one of the boats than in an automobile, and the airboat will seldom be more than five feet above the water."
Fansler, as general manager of the airline, fixed the price of a one-way ticket at $5 for the 22-minute trip. Passengers were allowed a maximum weight of 200 pounds gross, including hand baggage. "Excess weight [was] charged at $5 per hundred pounds, minimum charge 25 cents," according to the handbills distributed throughout the two cities. Besides operating two scheduled flights per day, six days a week, Fansler recalled that "our agreement with our backers permitted us to indulge in special flights at any price we cared to name, and we made a number of these trips at $10 to $20 each."
Charter flights could be arranged from St. Petersburg to several other Florida sites--Pass-a-Grille, Clearwater, Tarpon Springs, Bradenton, Sarasota, Palmetto, Safety Harbor and Egmont Key. Advertisements for these flights stated they would cost $15 and "trips covering any distance over water routes [would be made] from the waters' surface to several thousand feet high at passenger request."