ST. PETERSBURG — Tony Jannus’s history-making flight in an early seaplane — simultaneously as ungainly and graceful as a pelican on the wing — is what Mayor Rick Kriseman calls an "under-told and under-appreciated" story, but a team of local history buffs aims to change that.
So on Friday the nonprofit group Flight 2014, named for the centennial year of Jannus’s flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa, announced plans to raise an estimated $700,000 to put a memorial to the flight on the approach to the new St. Petersburg pier.
The monument would be placed near the original takeoff site. A replica of the original Benoist Airboat airliner would be mounted above a plaza where narrative panels would tell visitors how regularly scheduled airline service began with the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line. Organizers want the "First Airline Monument" in place by the end of 2019 to coincide with the opening of St. Petersburg’s new $76 million pier.
City Council member Ed Montanari, whose day job is piloting American Airlines jets, recalled at a news conference at Flying Boat Brewing Co. how he once met and told Sully Sullenberger that he wasn’t the first pilot to land a commercial airliner on the water.
No, Montanari told the Hero of the Hudson, Tony Jannus did it first in Tampa Bay.
On New Year’s Day 1914, Jannus was at the controls in the open-air cockpit when the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line launched commercial flight service from St. Petersburg’s Central Yacht Basin to downtown Tampa. Former St. Petersburg Mayor Abe Pheil paid $400 — a fare that, adjusted for inflation, would be about $9,860 today — to be aboard the Benoist bi-wing seaplane as the airline’s first passenger.
It was just 10 years and two weeks after the Wright brothers’ first successful flight at Kitty Hawk and was still a time when airplanes were seen as toys and novelties, said Will Michaels, president of Flight 2014. Jannus’s flight changed that, proving commercial air travel was possible and practical.
"This was cutting edge," Michaels said. A crowd of about 3,000 — in a city with a population of around 7,000 — turned out to watch the flight. The New York Times ran a front-page story on the feat.
And the rest, Montanari said, is history.
"Today, there’s over 1,400 commercial airlines, flying to over 3,800 airports. There’s 26,000 commercial airplanes in service, transporting 32 million people," he said. "And it all started right here in St. Petersburg."
Plans for the monument go back to the preparation about five years ago for the commemoration of the centennial of Jannus’s flight.
Ronald Whitney Jr., a graphic designer with the city of St. Petersburg, was working on some art in connection with the event when he learned that someone put up a monument to the flight in the 1950s. So he went looking for it — and found it, behind a dumpster, grown over by brush, and forgotten.
"Nobody even knew it was there," he said. Whitney brainstormed about his find with retired St. Petersburg Fire Rescue training chief Chris Davis, who approached Montanari. Whitney also offered his artwork, which seeded the idea for a bigger and more prominent monument.
St. Petersburg officials have approved putting the monument at the site of the original hangar, on the south side of the approach to the pier. The replica of the Benoist seaplane would be mounted on curved steel beams perhaps 10 to 14 feet off the ground — a realistic re-creation of a journey with an average in-flight altitude of just 50 feet above the bay.
"With this replica overhead, you’re really able to get a sense of what the moment would have been like in that historic scene," said Phil Graham IV, a landscape architect who is designing the plaza as a donation to the project.
So far, organizers have raised about $200,000 of the money they need, including contributions from Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, the International Air Transport Association and the Airlines for America Association. No city money will be used on the project, Michaels said.
Once complete, St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Christopher Steinocher said, the monument will create a place and a backdrop for selfies, but also will send a signal about the value that St. Petersburg places on its history, its waterfront and its people’s willingness to embrace the possible.
"We love the spirit of the entrepreneur, and it’s not new," he said. "It’s in our DNA."
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times