Plans under way for 100th anniversary celebration of historic Jannus flight

Over Polk City, Kermit Weeks of Fantasy of Flight flies a Stinson Tri-Motor, a plane used by many early airline companies.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Over Polk City, Kermit Weeks of Fantasy of Flight flies a Stinson Tri-Motor, a plane used by many early airline companies.

It has been a rough ride for the handful of aviation buffs dedicated to honoring the 100th anniversary of the first scheduled airline flight four years from today.

The U.S. Postal Service refused to issue a stamp commemorating the trip from St. Petersburg to Tampa on Jan. 1, 1914. Just five of the world's 20 largest airlines responded to letters requesting help promoting the centennial. They all declined, citing financial troubles. The Smithsonian Institution couldn't offer money either.

But the group's efforts have finally borne fruit: a benefactor who has pledged to build a working replica of the Benoist airboat and fly the 21-mile route that pilot Tony Jannus pioneered for the short-lived St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line.

Kermit Weeks, owner of the Fantasy of Flight aviation museum in Polk City, says the anniversary flight could anchor a larger event celebrating a century of commercial aviation.

"This (flight) planted a stake in the ground that made aviation what it became,'' says Weeks, a pony-tailed former aerobatics champion and world-class aircraft collector. "For everyone who uses an airplane for hire, this is where the seed was sown.''

For organizers from the Florida Aviation Historical Society to pull off a major centennial event — one suggests a gala dinner, film festival and theater production for airline executives — could be a tall order.

But a celebration focused on a reenacted flight is perfectly plausible. Volunteers built a model of the airboat and the society's founder, Ed Hoffman, flew it from Bayboro Harbor to the Davis Island yacht basin for the flight's 70th anniversary in 1984.

Hoffman died at 90 last year. Weeks, 56, flies a variety of vintage commercial and military planes from his fleet of more than 140, called the world's largest privately owned aircraft collection. He employs a half dozen mechanics and restoration specialists at Fantasy of Flight.

And scholars worldwide recognize the Jannus flight as a historical milestone. "It's not inconsequential,'' says Tom Crouch, senior curator for aeronautics at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., where a kiosk memorializes the event.

•••

Geography brought the first scheduled airline to Tampa Bay. Before 1914, a horse and buggy or automobile trip between St. Petersburg and Tampa took several hours over rutted, unpaved roads. Trains and steamships made the trip in no less than three hours.

Percival Fansler, a marine diesel engine salesman in Florida, pitched the idea of regular air service to St. Petersburg businessmen. City leaders agreed to subsidize flights for the three months.

Jannus had already made a name for himself in nascent aviation business. In 1912, he was the pilot of the plane used in the first parachute jump from a moving aircraft near St. Louis. Later that year, he set an over-water record, flying an airboat made by Benoist Aircraft Co. 1,900 miles from Omaha to New Orleans over the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

On New Year's Day 1914, he took off with former St. Petersburg Mayor Abe Pheil in the passenger seat as 3,000 people watched from the pier and nearby waterfront. Jannus flew 50 feet over the water at speeds up to 75 mph. Twenty-three minutes after lifting off across the bay, the airboat landed in the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa to the cheers of 1,500 spectators.

Afterward, the airboat line flew twice daily except on Sundays, charging passengers $5 each way. Scheduled service ended March 31, 1914. The aircraft's owner, Thomas Benoist, said the venture didn't make much money.

Jannus split with Benoist. He died Oct. 12, 1916, when the plane he was using to train Russian pilots developed engine problems and crashed into the Black Sea. His body was not found.

•••

Microphone in hand, Weeks dashes through his life story before a crowd gathered for Fantasy of Flight's daily flight exhibition.

Hooked on airplanes at 13 by the novelty song Snoopy vs. the Red Baron. Learned to fly as a teen. First competed in aerobatics in 1973 at 20, qualified for the U.S. team in 1977 and a year later finished second among 61 fliers in the world championships. Two U.S. championships followed.

Weeks then turned to collecting and restoring vintage aircraft — thanks to his grandfather.

Lewis G. Weeks, a petroleum geologist, had advised an Australian company where to look for oil off the continent's southeast coast. A deal with Esso, now Exxon, brought him a 2.5 percent royalty on oil and gas extracted from Australia's biggest oil field. Kermit and family members received a share.

Kermit opened the Weeks Air Museum in Miami to showcase his collection. Weeks started buying land 20 miles southwest of Walt Disney World in the mid 1980s and opened Fantasy of Flight there in 1995.

Last year, the historical society elected him to its Florida Aviation Hall of Fame. At the induction lunch, someone mentioned the one-third scale model Benoist the society commissioned to promote the anniversary.

"I told them I'd build one and fly it myself,'' says Weeks. Last month, he committed to build a replica from scratch, including forging a two-cycle engine and stretching muslin over a wood frame like the original. The work will take two years and cost more than $300,000, says Weeks.

Meanwhile, centennial organizers grapple with ideas to expand the event.

Neil Cosentino, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot known for quixotic public campaigns, is pushing the most elaborate concept: inviting the CEOs of 700 airlines around the world to Tampa Bay.

Events over three to seven days would include a black-tie dinner, trade shows thrown by airline product vendors, a festival of in-flight movies and a play with an actor portraying Tony Jannus and other characters in the first airline flight story, a la Hal Holbrook in "Mark Twain Tonight.''

First, he says, organizers need the Florida Legislature to create a commission to plan events and help shake loose state dollars as seed money.

Congress created a panel to oversee the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers historic flight in 2003. The U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission helped attract corporate donations that paid most of the bills for a week of events at Kitty Hawk, N.C., that drew tens of thousands of aviation enthusiasts.

Getting a federal commission for the Jannus flight anniversary probably isn't realistic, said Crouch, who chaired the Centennial of Flight Commission's advisory panel.

"I speak to the people down there and they're really enthusiastic,'' he says. "Something on a smaller scale might not be unreasonable.''

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Plans under way for 100th anniversary celebration of historic Jannus flight 12/31/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 4, 2010 12:40pm]

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