The railroads of Henries Plant and Flager. The Shuttles of Florida’s Space Coast. The Monorails of Disney (the most heavily used monorail system in the world, thank you very much). Florida’s contributions to innovative methods of transportation are often summarized in “we built the overseas railroad” or “we went to space,” but everyone seems to forget that time we went from St. Petersburg to Tampa in 23 minutes, a venture that seems almost impossible today.
More importantly though, was that this trip—made over Tampa Bay in a flying boat—was the start of the first commercial airline service in the world. The service lasted a little over four months, but it had a lasting impact on the multi-billion dollar industry of commercial aviation. It also delivered hams.
Architects of the Airline Industry
St. Petersburg-Tampa (SPT) Airboat Line was organized by Percival Elliot Fansler, with the assistance of St. Louis-based Thomas Benoist and Anthony (Tony) Jannus. Benoist was a pilot and manufacturer of his Benoist airboats, who believed that “Some day people will be crossing oceans on airliners like they do on steamships today.”
Fansler was a Florida-based salesman for Kahlenberg Brothers, a manufacturer of diesel engines for fishing boats. Fansler, having been excited by the advancements in aircraft design made by Benoist (pronounced Ben-wah or Ben-weest), wrote to Benoist of his desire to run a scheduled airline service “from somewhere to somewhere else.” After some time corresponding, the pair decided that their “somewheres” would be located around Tampa Bay.
Benoist, who already had grand visions of the future of air travel, was excited by the idea, and agreed to provide three aircraft, a pilot, and mechanics. Fansler was to make the business arrangements, chart a suitable route, and secure funding. Tony Jannus was to serve as the service’s pilot.
Jannus was a flying instructor for Benoist in St. Louis, and is now regarded as a pioneer in early aviation. In 1912, he piloted the first flight from which a parachute jump was made, and later that same year established the American passenger-carrying record by carrying three passengers for ten minutes. He set a continuous flight record with a passenger after traveling 251 miles from Paducah, KY to St. Louis, MO in four hours and fifteen minutes.
He also set the flight distance record of 1,973 miles, although it took six weeks after many stops for exhibitions, maintenance, a fire, and appendicitis—an ordeal which caused him to stop and chug two cases of beer to deal with the stabbing pains before finishing the flight. Thus, he is quite possibly the first person to operate an aircraft under the influence of alcohol, but this is unconfirmed, and since people had been flying for over a decade already and drinking since forever, it’s probably not the case.
Thanks to his service with the SPT Airboat Line, he became the first commercial airline pilot in history, and during his service on January 20, 1914, he likely became the first person to kill a bird with a plane. The Evening Independent reported that a pelican “lost its head completely” after Jannus, traveling at over 50 miles per hour and unable to safely alter his course in time, collided with the bird.
He may also have been the first formally licensed pilot, as the Tampa Port Inspector required licensed pilots for all SPT flights. However, according to the Florida Aviation Historical Society, the U.S. Department of Commerce only had steamboat licenses on hand, so the word “steamboat” was crossed off and replaced with “aeroplane.”
Jannus was highly regarded as “the pioneer flying-boat pilot of the world,” even before his time with the SPT line, and his renown was a major factor in the excitement surrounding the airline.
The First Airline
After no interest from the City of Tampa, Fansler sought partnership with the City of St. Petersburg. The group that received Fansler largely thought him crazy, and even secured $100 bets from each of the 12 men, who refused to believe that flying boats actually existed.
Soon after they lost their bets, the St. Petersburg Board of Trade signed a three-month contract with the service—on the ten-year anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk flight, no less. The city pledged $1,200 and promised to build a hangar and to cover the costs if operational expenses exceeded profits.
Fansler decided that the line would service Tampa and St. Petersburg. In 1914, travel between the two cities took at least two hours by boat, twelve hours by train, and up to 20+ hours on dirt roads by car, at the time equipped with unreliable engines and solid rubber tires. On the SPT Airboat Line, a passenger could cover the 18-mile distance after 23 minutes, while hardly exceeding five feet of altitude. (For the record, this trip would take at least 30 minutes by car today, if you’re lucky and don’t get stuck in traffic for two hours.)
Two Model 14 Benoist Airboats and one Model 13 were shipped by train. The Model 14s, christened The Lark of Duluth (construction No. 43) and the Florida (construction No. 45), ferried passengers and cargo as the primary vessels for the SPT Airboat Line. The Lark, built the previous year, carried joyriders over the Duluth, MN harbor but to no commercial success.
The Model 13 was used for training purposes in a pilot school that Fansler established. These airboats—shipped unassembled—were largely constructed of spruce, wire, and fabric, and were powered by Roberts six-cylinder, in-line, liquid-cooled, 75-horsepower engines. Priced at $4,250, they were advertised as “motor boats with wings and air propellers,” and reached a top speed of 64 miles per hour.
Fansler set ticket prices at five dollars for a one-way trip for a single passenger, or for 100 pounds of cargo. The contract also permitted him to charge willing passengers “any price [Fansler] cared to name” for special recreational flights. Passengers could also request to reach altitudes of over several thousand feet on $15-dollar charter trips “covering any distance over water routes” to Clearwater, Sarasota, Bradenton, and Palmetto, among other locals.
The inaugural flight, on New Year’s Day of 1914, was well-attended thanks to almost daily coverage from from St. Petersburg Times since the day the contract was signed. Interestingly, this first flight was much more well-received than the Wright Brothers’ first flight, which the public found generally unimpressive and garnered little media attention. Luthor Beard of the Dayton Journal said of the brothers’ achievement:
“I sort of felt sorry for them. They seemed like well-meaning, decent young men. Yet here they were, neglecting their business to waste their time day after day on that ridiculous flying-machine.”
A crowd of over 3,000 spectators gathered to see Jannus off, backed by a parade with an Italian band from the Johnny Jones Show that marched to the docks from downtown St. Petersburg. While Jannus readied his Benoist Model 14 (The Lark of Duluth), Fansler quieted the crowd to offer a few visionary quotes: “The Airboat Line to Tampa will be only a forerunner of a great activity along these lines in the near future. What was impossible yesterday is an accomplishment today, while tomorrow heralds the unbelievable.”
An auction for the first round-trip ticket went to the former mayor of St. Petersburg, Abram C. Pheil, for $400 (about $9,860, adjusted for inflation). The sum was donated to the city for the purchase of harbor lights. Thus, Pheil effectively became the first airline passenger in history.
The first commercial airline flight in history also became the first flight to experience delays, as Jannus was forced to land in the bay mid-flight to repair a drive chain (a recurring problem for the Benoist airboats). Apparently, Phiel himself got his hands dirty during the delay “assisting Mr. Jannus to adjust some machinery.”
After the brief stop for maintenance, The Lark was en route once again, and the pair were received by a crowd of over 2,000 spectators as they alighted at the entrance of the Hillsborough River. Reportedly, an additional 1,500 spectators watched from the Lafayette Street bridge and from across the river, and crowds were forced back by the police as they rushed to the dock to meet the pilot and his passenger.
Economic and Social Impact
Following the success of the first day of operations, the St. Petersburg Times contracted with the SPT Airboat line to deliver its daily papers, making it the self-proclaimed “most unusual carrier system in all the world.” This served to make a lot of other newspapers extremely jealous.
The Jacksonville Metropolis claimed that, “St. Petersburg is now a city of pelicans, porpoises, and planes,” which apparently was supposed to be an insult. The Estero Eagle, better equipped to talk smack than their Jacksonville compatriots, asked, “Is Tampa such a tough and wicked old city that its residents are prepared to fly from it?” The Tampa Tribune responded that “all airboat passengers have been from St. Petersburg and are apparently eager to get to Tampa.” The St. Petersburg Independent took that personally: “It is noticeable that the time from Tampa is always faster than the time to Tampa. Once having reached Tampa, no matter how anxious to get there, the passengers are always in a hurry to get away.”
In probably the darkest take of them all, the Jacksonville News reported that: “St. Petersburg papers might secure an obituary sketch of all aeroplane passengers at the same time they take the manifests. It might save some time.”
Aside from the print news blood feud that was ignited across the state, the airline had an immediate impact on other business as well. Merchants looked to take advantage of this novel shipping method as a means of generating interest in their products and services. Mail was carried, in addition to fresh-cut flowers, and even smoked hams and bacon: “Although they came high, the price is low.”
In addition to the regularly scheduled flights, Jannus piloted over 100 SPT charter and sightseeing flights, carrying over 1,200 passengers an estimated 7,000 air miles. The total income of fares is estimated to have exceeded $12,000, but after the cost of transporting the Benoist airboats, maintenance and repair costs, fuel and oil costs, and operational expenses, the airline made only a small profit.
After winter, however, with the exodus of the snowbird tourist population, interest in the line plummeted. While Fansler’s contract with St. Petersburg expired at the end of March (just three months after its execution), the SPT Airboat Line operated for over an additional month. The last flight was made on May 5, 1914.
Despite the modest profits, Fansler boasted that demand for flights remained high throughout the short lifespan of the SPT Airboat Line: “We had a waiting list a yard long, and not once did we have to fly without a passenger.” Similarly, Benoist commented on the success of the experimental venture: “We have not made much money, but I believe we have proved that the airplane can be successfully used as a regular means of transportation and commercial carrier.”
Despite its short lifespan, the SPT Airboat Line experiment proved that commercial airline travel was viable, and it provided a foundation for the multi-billion dollar aviation industry.
The SPT and Jannus Legacy
After the cessation of SPT operations, Jannus and his brother Roger went on to found their own firm “Jannus Brothers, Aviation.” Reportedly brash in his dealings with death, Jannus once promised that “in due time he would ‘fall’ (crash) and when he did he would write a book about it while recovering.”
Just two years after his time with the SPT Airboat Line, on October 12, 1916, he and his two passengers were killed when his Curtiss H-7 flying boat crashed into Russia’s Black Sea following engine troubles. The passengers bodies’, strapped in to the Curtiss, were recovered. Jannus’ body remains lost at sea.
His impact on the aviation industry cannot be overstated, and his contributions have been memorialized in the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society, formed in 1964 by the St. Petersburg and Tampa Chambers of Commerce. The Society annually recognizes an individual who has “contributed to the growth and improvement of the airline industry” with the Tony Jannus Award. Past recipients include Sir Lenox Hewitt, Captain Edward V. Rickenbacker, Lt, Gen. James Doolittle, Brigadier General Charles “Chuck” Yeager, and Sir Richard Branson. The Society also works to “perpetuate the legacy of the world’s first commercial airline,” and to provide scholarships and support to college students pursuing careers in commercial aviation.
The City of Tampa has erected a modest monument in Tony Jannus Park to commemorate the flight, but more deserving accommodations are reportedly in the works. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman calls the story “under-told and under-appreciated,” but the Tampa Bay Times reports that a team of local history buffs aims to change that (*author brushes off shoulder*).
The local nonprofit group Flight 2014, named for the centennial year of the SPT flight, announced plans to raise $700,000 to put a memorial to the flight on the approach to the new St. Petersburg pier. Considering his contributions to an industry that now moves over 32 million people in 26,000 airplanes servicing 1,400 commercial airlines at 3,800 airports, it seems well deserved.
The post was reviewed and edited by the incomparable Jordan Engelke.
Danielson, Richard. Proposed monument near St. Pete pier would honor Tony Jannus history-making flight. Tampa Bay Times, January 19, 2019. https://www.tampabay.com/news/business/Proposed-monument-near-St-Pete-pier-would-honor-Tony-Jannus-history-making-flight_164657606.
Glines, C.V. St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line: World’s First Scheduled Airline Using Winged Aircraft. Aviation History, May 1997. http://www.historynet.com/st-petersburgtampa-airboat-line-worlds-first-scheduled-airline-using-winged-aircraft.html.
Hoh, John L. Jr. Pioneers of Profit Among the Clouds: A History of Early Commercial Aviation. CheddarBrau Publications. Milwaukee, WI. 2007.
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Introduction to Flying. In Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. Published by U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), 2008. http://www.flyinhighokc.com/pilotshandbook/pages/0-1.html.
Michaels, Will. The Making of St. Petersburg.The History Press, 2012.
The Evening Independent, St. Petersburg, Florida, Number 68, Jan 21, 1914.
The World’s First Scheduled Airline. America By Air. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. https://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/america-by-air/online/early_years/early_years01.cfm.
Who is Tony Jannus. Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society. https://tonyjannus.com/history/.