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Benoist plane replica won't be ready for historic Jannus flight re-creation

Technical difficulties have deferred Kermit Weeks' dream to replicate the historic Tony Jannus flight on New Year's morning.

"We're not going to be able to fly," Weeks said Monday. "We've just run out of time. I can't worry if it can fly. I can't even get it off the water at this point."

Weeks, founder of Fantasy of Flight, an aviation attraction near Lakeland, had been building a reproduction of the Benoist airboat Jannus flew across Tampa Bay on New Year's Day a century ago. Historians consider the Jannus flight the beginning of the world's commercial airline industry.

Monday's cancellation is a major disappointment for organizers.

"We've been crossing our fingers for the last several days, just hoping that this will come off with Kermit flying the reproduction. Obviously, a lot of emotion has gone into this," said Will Michaels, co-chairman of the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society and president of Flight 2014 Inc., the nonprofit organizing the anniversary.

But the centennial celebration of Jannus' historic round-trip flight between St. Petersburg and Tampa will go on, Michaels said.

The contingency plan calls for Eddie Hoffman Jr. — the son of the man who built the Benoist replica that hangs from the ceiling at the St. Petersburg Museum of History — to fly an amphibious flying boat called a Hoffman X-4 mullet skiff. It will be an encore for the aircraft, which was flown in 2000 to commemorate the 86th anniversary of Jannus' flight.

"It's kind of neat that it is a replica that has been flown in previous re-enactments and has a long history in Tampa Bay, and especially in St. Petersburg," Michaels said. "The Hoffman family is a three-generation St. Petersburg family."

A century ago, 3,000 spectators crowded St. Petersburg's waterfront to witness Jannus' flight, which launched the short-lived St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line.

Jannus, a test pilot, was 24 when he made his historic flight across Tampa Bay in the Benoist airboat, carrying former St. Petersburg Mayor Abe Pheil as his first passenger. For the next three months, the airline carried 1,205 passengers and thousands of pounds of cargo. The airline closed for business on May 5, 1914.

Weeks, 60, had committed to fund, build and fly an authentic version of the Jannus plane as part of the centennial. He even commissioned a built-from-scratch six-cylinder, two-stroke, 300-pound, 478-cubic-inch engine for the reproduction.

But Weeks and his crew struggled to meet this week's deadline. In a news release announcing the cancellation, organizers said that after receiving approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to test fly the reproduction Saturday, he "was able to power the engine and taxi the airboat on water, but unable to get it airborne despite making several adjustments to the plane."

Weeks still plans to truck his Benoist reproduction to St. Petersburg to be on display during the anniversary celebration.

"Kermit will fly sometime in 2014, and we will have another celebration for that," Michaels said. "It's kind of like those Christmas presents that don't arrive on Christmas Day. They arrive a few days later, but they're still delightful when you open them."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

.Fast facts

If you go

Tonight, First Night, First Flight programs will be the theme of St. Petersburg's annual First Night celebration. The St. Petersburg Museum of History, 335 Second Ave. NE, will be Flight 2014 headquarters. Balsa wood airboat gliders will be given away to the first 500 children. At 7 p.m., actor Michael Norton will portray Tony Jannus. Kermit Weeks will speak at 8 p.m. Weeks will display the Benoist 2014 near the museum and speak of his efforts to build it and the challenges he faced. An auction will be held for two round-trip tickets on Southwest Airlines. Stamp collectors can arrange to get a special First Airline cancellation.

New Year's Day re-enactment

The program will begin at 9 a.m. in both St. Petersburg and Tampa. Kermit Weeks will power up the Benoist 2014 and taxi the airboat in the Vinoy Yacht Basin, but will not fly it. The takeoff ceremony in St. Petersburg for the mullet skiff will be next to the St. Petersburg Museum of History, 335 Second Ave. NE. The landing ceremony will be in Tampa near the seaplane basin at Peter O. Knight Airport. Large screens will be erected at both sites with live video. The live feed links may be accessed at the Flight 2014 website, airlinecentennial.org.

Benoist plane replica won't be ready for historic Jannus flight re-creation 12/30/13 [Last modified: Monday, December 30, 2013 10:53pm]

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