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MEANWHILE, ACROSS the Atlantic in another St. Petersburg, a Florida businessman named Percival Elliot Fansler approached aeroplane maker Tom Benoist with an intriguing idea. Tampa Bay separated the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg. Travel between the two cities took 2 1/2 hours by steamship, even longer by train, and a car trip around the bay on unpaved roads was barely an option. What about flying across?
The result was establishment of the world’s first regularly scheduled passenger service in winged aircraft (this last qualifier necessary as there had been earlier dirigible travel). The contract for the St. Petersburg Tampa Airboat Line was signed on December 17, 1913, ten years to the day after the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Its means of transport was a Benoist Type XIV flying boat.
The Benoist Type XIV was a wood and fabric biplane powered by a two-cycle inline-6 Roberts engine producing 75 hp. This engine was mounted within the hull of the airboat, thus giving the craft a low center of gravity and good stability in the water. It also necessitated a chain drive to its pusher prop mounted high to avoid the water. The airboat carried one passenger seated alongside its pilot.
The historic inaugural flight took place on January 1, 1914, with Benoist pilot Tony Jannus at the controls. A parade, an Italian band and 3000 spectators celebrated the event.
Abram C. Pheil, St. Petersburg’s former mayor, paid $400 at auction for the first ticket. (On a personal note, Mr. Pheil’s granddaughter learned from a relative of my flight-sim effort and got in touch.) Their flight of 22 miles took 23 minutes, including a brief touchdown on the bay for Jannus to do a bit of engine work.
This inaugurated the Airboat Line’s twice-daily round-trips, with two more Benoist flying boats forming a fleet. A flight cost $5, about $116 in today’s money, provided you weighed less than 200 lb. Beyond this, there was a $5 per 100-lb. surcharge, “minimum 25¢.”
Other newspapers in the state took swipes at it all. Advised the Jacksonville News, “St. Petersburg papers might secure an obituary sketch of all aeroplane passengers at the same time they take passenger manifests. It might save time.”
In fact, the Airboat Line’s contract ran out in early May 1914 and was not renewed. Various data exist as to the endeavor’s success, some of which fail arithmetic scrutiny, but an important bit is that there were no reported mishaps other than passengers experiencing occasional splashes of bay water.
Celebrating in 1964 the 50th anniversary of the Airboat Line’s inaugural flight, the Chambers of Commerce of St. Petersburg and Tampa established a Tony Jannus Award “honoring achievements in scheduled commercial aviation.” Its first recipient was U.S. Senator A.S. “Mike” Monroney, author of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, the one creating the Federal Aviation Administration.
You might also remember him for proposing the labels on new cars, the “Monroney stickers.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2012