The Pioneer Airline

Who would have believed that a small US city of 9,000 souls would make history by setting the scene for the start of the World’s first scheduled airline?

But this is what happened when a small enterprise began a short period of regular passenger flights and became known as the St Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line “What was impossible yesterday is an accomplishment today, while tomorrow heralds the unbelievable.” Percival Fansler told the crowd gathered at St Petersburg Municipal Pier, January 1 1914 to watch the departure of the world’s first scheduled air service.

As we sit cosseted, drink in hand, in a comfortable air conditioned cabin, travelling at almost the speed of sound seven miles above the earth, it is easy to become blase about how far air travel has evolved since the first scheduled departure 95 years ago. Few of today’s passengers would have heard of the company, or be able aware of the route that it flew to establish the first scheduled passenger flights anywhere in the world; then would many really care? Yet, without the substantial risks taken by the enterprising early pioneers, aviation would have taken far longer to progress.

Although many countries were already competing to be first to make commercial passenger flights during the unsettled period immediately preceding the First World War, Europe had been paving the way. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had founded Die Deutsche Luftschiffahrt Aktiengesellschaft (DELAG) – The German Airship Transportation Company, on November 16 1909 and his company was already successfully carrying passengers, but in lighter than air dirigibles, between Freidrichshafen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Leipzig, Potsdam and Dresden. The Hamburg-Amerika Shipping Line (HAPAG) had invested in the company and was responsible for booking seats on the six craft, of which three were later wrecked. Between March 1912 and November 1913 the company made 881 flights and carried 19,100 passengers over a distance totaling 65,000 miles. Overall, between 1910 and the outbreak of War in 1914, an estimated 34,000 passengers had been carried on over 1,500 flights mostly aboard the Hansa, Schwaben, Sachsen and Viktoria-Luise. But contrary to some earlier claims, it is generally accepted that most of these were no more than short pleasure flights putting the company’s claim to the title of the world’s first scheduled passenger air service into considerable doubt.

The honor for this falls to the St Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line who used a Roberts powered Benoist XIV flying boat piloted by Antony Habersack Jannus to ferry passengers and small consignments of freight between the cities on opposite sides of Tampa Bay, Florida. A plaque at the entrance to the St Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport (PIE) commemorates the world’s first scheduled passenger flight, simply inscribed: “The Birthplace of Scheduled Air Transportation.” A replica of the Benoist flying boat that made the epic flight is proudly displayed within the terminal building and the St Petersburg Museum of History, close to the pier where the flimsy flying boats departed, is also home to a full size working replica that flew during 1984 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the flight.

The service began on Thursday January 1 1914 with the former mayor of St Petersburg, Abe Pheil bidding $400 in an auction to be the first ever passenger; Noel E Mitchell with a bid of $175 flew on the second flight during the afternoon, and next day the first woman passenger, Miss Mae Peabody from Dubuque, Ohio was carried at 09.30 before the scheduled flight was due to depart. The service continued successfully with two daily flights over a period of four months to carve a place in history. Although the small aircraft could accommodate only one passenger; or two if their build was slight, on each twenty mile trip, the service established a high level of regularity and safely carried 1,204 passengers (some sources claim 1,205) until the contracted operating period ended on March 31. The service became so successful that a second flying boat was brought in to cope with demand, flown by Tony’s older brother, Roger Weightman Jannus. However, when the winter snowbirds that annually flock to Florida to escape the harsh north eastern seaboard weather returned home, there was no longer sufficient tourist traffic to sustain the business.

Percival Elliott Fansler, a Florida sales representative, had considered the idea of the Airboat Line in November 1913 after hearing the exploits of Tony Jannus, who had already flown a ground breaking trip in 1912 that followed the Mississippi river for 1,700 miles. During the same year Jannus had also piloted the aircraft carrying Albert Berry, the first person ever to make a parachute jump from a moving powered aircraft. Fansler decided to write to Thomas Wesley Benoist (pronounced Ben-wah) who had built Jannus’s aircraft, with his suggestion of establishing an air route across Tampa Bay.

Benoist responded favorably to his telegram, and offered to provide three airboats, mechanics and pilots if Fansler could raise some of the finance. When Fansler found no takers in Tampa he crossed the Bay by boat and courted the residents of the small city of St Petersburg (then with a small population of around 9,000) who were more receptive of his idea. He talked fourteen businessmen into putting $100 each into the project with the local Board of Trade offering a similar amount. With the funding secure, Fansler wired Benoist who arrived in St Petersburg on December 17 1913 and signed the first airline contract written anywhere in the world. The City of St Petersburg, delighted at the prospect, agreed to pay a $2,400 cash subsidy in return for Benoist supplying the planes and pilots to maintain a schedule of two flights a day, six days a week for a period of three months.

The City further guaranteed to pay $40 a day during January; $25 through February and March as a bonus for every day flights were completed to schedule. In all, only four days resulted in flight cancellations due to mechanical problems. Fansler became general manager of the airline and set the fare at $5 (more than $82 in today’s money) for a one-way trip that lasted an average 18-23 minutes. Passengers weighing up to 200 pounds with their hand luggage were accepted at this fare, with an excess of $5 charged for each additional 100 pounds. The airline also made ‘special trips’ to places such as Clearwater, Bradenton, Sarasota and Egmont Key that normally cost between $10 and $20 but with no fixed prices fares were open to negotiation. Passengers quickly formed a waiting list to take a flight, specifically because the airline considerably cut the journey time by rail (12 hours) and boat. The quality of cars and the state of the roads at the time generally ruled out motor transport as a suitable alternative.

Fansler, enamored by the success of his venture, announced that he would start a flying school. Three Benoist airboats were sent from the manufacturer’s St Louis factory; two Model XIVs that flew the scheduled services, and a Model XIII that was used to train pilots. These were housed in a hangar that carried a sign lavishly proclaiming it as the ‘Benoist School of Aviation.’

The first aircraft to arrive was the Benoist number 43 that had first flown on June 25 1913. After being delayed, it arrived at St Petersburg commercial dock by train during late afternoon on December 31 1913. Awaiting the arrival, Tom Benoist, Tony Jannus and their engineer, a man named Smitty, nervously unpacked the flying machine while an expectant crowd watched. The Benoist had been shipped almost complete and it required little time to be fully assembled before Jannus got it into the water to make a short test flight before the first passenger services began next morning.

The aircraft had previously flown at Put-in-Bay, Grand Rapids, Keokuk and St Louis and during the summer of 1913 carried joy riders over the lake at Duluth, Minnesota where it was given the name Lark of Duluth. Number 43 weighed 1,250 pounds empty, was 26 feet long with a wing span of 44 feet; the hull was built of three layers of spruce planking with canvas between over a skeleton of spruce longitudinals and ribs. The Roberts 6-cylinder in-line 75 hp water cooled engine was placed low down in the hull, supported by two strong spruce beams, to provide strength and a low centre of gravity that offered good stability on water. The aircraft could reach 64 mph and during the scheduled services usually operated at no higher than 500 feet. A single propeller was located behind the passenger seats between the plane struts that could be started by the pilot using a starting handle.

It was estimated that three thousand people had gathered next morning at the St Petersburg waterside to watch the spectacle. Three motion picture cameras and photographers recorded the event and a local band played as the slightly nervous Mr Pheil, dressed in raincoat, hat and goggles, took his place on the small wooden seat alongside Jannus, ready for the 10.00am departure. The following tribute reproduced as it appeared in The World’s First Airline – The St Petersburg to Tampa Airboat Line by Gay Blair White (Aero Medical Consultants Inc: 1982).poetically describes the epic flight.

‘The old Roberts wheezed, coughed, fired once and died. Tony Jannus inserted the crank again. It was a cold New Year’s morning but he was warming up to the job.

‘Once more he pulled down hard on the crank and this time the old two-cycle burst into life with a bellow of smoke from the stacks. Jay Dee leaned over the hull and adjusted the carb. The engine smoothed to a loud purr and Tony motioned to his passenger to climb in. Both waved to the excited crowd as the airboat slid into the water.

‘Jannus headed for the west of the harbor. Then he turned the boat into the wind and opened the throttle. Slowly, coming up on the step, she picked up speed and skipped twice, floated into the air as she came to the mouth of the harbor. P E Fansler glanced at his watch as the Benoist came past the breakwater. It was exactly 10.00am; the World’s First Airline was on its way.’

The Benoist had become airborne in less than 200 feet. Some headwinds were encountered on the crossing and the flying boat developed some minor engine problems. This forced Jannus to make a brief landing on Tampa Bay but after some adjustments they were soon back in the air. Despite the skeptics who refused to believe the aircraft would complete the journey, at 10.26 Fansler took a phone call informing him that the aircraft had reached Tampa. An excited attendant told him: “Tony’s coming up the river and there’s a big crowd yelling their heads off.” The return departure left on time at 11.00 and arrived a little over twenty minutes later to the still waiting crowd. On January 8, Mrs L A Whitney crossed the bay in both directions to become the first woman ever to make a scheduled passenger flight in a heavier than air plane.

It took only a week for officialdom to intervene. On January 7 the head of the Steamboat Inspection Bureau of the Department of Commerce served a summons on Jannus to appear in court requiring him to apply for a Government license to carry passengers. He was also enforced to have the aircraft inspected, have it equipped with lights, horn or whistle, fire extinguisher and life-preservers. Jannus complied and was issued with the first temporary pilot’s license in the US on February 17 with a full license granted during August. Benoist was more concerned at Federal interest in flying and complained that the $15 tax charge he was being made to pay in Missouri every time he took-off was forcing him out of business.

The exploits of the little airline operated safely throughout the period and regularly appeared in the headlines for the number of ‘firsts’ created, among them was the story of the Tampa firm, Swift and Company, who were the first to fly a consignment of ham and bacon, that was delivered to the Heffner Grocery Company in St Petersburg. This prompted the company to take an advertisement in the newspaper that was headlined ‘It comes high but we must have it.’ The St Petersburg Times also became the first newspaper to use a scheduled airline to carry their publications when it signed a contract for editions to be flown to Tampa.

The brief success of the company should not be underestimated. Although War had intervened, it took until August 25 1919 for Air Transport and Travel Limited to operate the first international scheduled air service in Europe between London (Hounslow) and Paris (Le Bourget) and considerably longer in the US. Despite claims that Pacific Marine Airlines may have regularly carried passengers between Wilmington and Catalina Island in 1922, this has been brought into doubt, and despite some early attempts by a few small companies to carry passengers, nothing much occurred until Ryan Airlines began scheduled services from San Diego to Los Angeles on March 1 1925.

Sadly the careers of Tony and Roger Jannus met tragic ends within a few years of creating the company. Tony had joined the Curtiss Aero plane Company and went to Russia to train pilots. On October 12 1916, while working at Sevastopol on the Black Sea, his Curtis K aircraft suffered engine failure and dived into the sea. His body was never recovered although those of the two Russians airmen flying with him were found. Roger Jannus and a student pilot died when the De Havilland DH4 leaked flew and blew up in mid-air on September 4 1918. Tom Benoist was also victim of a bizarre accident. While travelling on a streetcar to his factory at Sandusky, Ohio on June 14 1917, he leaned from the side of the vehicle to wave to a friend and was struck a telegraph pole. He fell from the streetcar and died in hospital three hours later, aged 43.

As a legacy of his achievements, the Tony Jannus Award was created to recognize outstanding individual achievement in commercial aviation. The 2009 recipient is the Hon James I Oberstar, the US Congressman for Minnesota, Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The award, made annually since 1964, has previously been given to notables such as Eddie Rickenbacker, Sir Freddie Laker, Sir Richard Branson, Herb Kelleher, Charles Yeager, Robert Crandall, Capt Elrey B Jeppesen, Donald Douglas and Juan Trippe.

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