Thursday, November 23, 2017
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One man's commitment powers Tony Jannus re-enactment

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In a massive undertaking, a reproduction of the Benoist airboat Tony Jannus once flew across Tampa Bay has been taking form near Orlando.

Its wings — yards of muslin stretched taut over Sitka spruce and coated with a sealant the industry calls airplane dope — started out here, in the vast woodshop at Fantasy of Flight, an aviation attraction in Polk City.

The ribs, struts, control sticks, fuselage, hull and the 34-inch wooden seat for a pilot and passenger of slender proportions have also been painstakingly handcrafted at this site half an hour from Disney. The built-from-scratch engine was constructed outside Cleveland.

All is being readied for the Jan. 1 re-enactment of Jannus' historic round-trip flight between St. Petersburg and Tampa 100 years ago to the day. And if it goes as planned, the reproduction Benoist will take off from St. Petersburg's North Yacht Basin on New Year's morning and land in Tampa, at the seaplane basin at the Peter O. Knight Airport.

Making history

Thronging the St. Petersburg waterfront, 3,000 spectators showed up to catch a glimpse of Jannus' pioneer flight.

"It was a novelty," said Dr. Warren J. Brown, a former FAA flight surgeon and author of the book, The World's First Scheduled Airline.

"Most people in St. Petersburg had not seen an airplane before. It was like watching spacemen come into the St. Petersburg Pier."

The Jan. 1, 1914, flight launched the short-lived, but groundbreaking St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line recognized as the world's first commercial airline.

In those days, travel by train between St. Petersburg and Tampa could take from five to 12 hours. Automobile took all day, going around Oldsmar. Steam ship took two hours.

"Fast passenger and express service," an advertisement for the new airline bragged.

Tony Jannus

He has been called "the gentleman adventurer." A few years ago, Florida honored him with a Great Floridian Award, placing him in the company of Juan Ponce de Leon, Walt Disney, Lilly Pulitzer, Tony Dungy and General Norman Schwarzkopf.

A test pilot who held the first federal airline license, Jannus set an over-water record, flying a Benoist airboat 1,900 miles from Omaha to New Orleans over the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

He was 24 when he made his historic flight across Tampa Bay.

The idea of an airline had been Percival E. Fansler's. The Jacksonville-based electrical engineer couldn't get backing in either Jacksonville or Tampa for the venture, but got lucky in St. Petersburg, said Brown, a former president of the Florida Aviation Historical Society.

Fansler also got Tom Benoist to supply the airboats and Jannus as the pilot. With financial support from Lew Brown, publisher of the Evening Independent, Perry Snell, George Gandy and other businessmen, the airline was launched.

Jannus' inaugural flight to Tampa, with former St. Petersburg Mayor Abe Pheil as his passenger, took 23 minutes. The return took 20.

For the next three months, the airline carried 1,205 passengers and thousands of pounds of cargo. The fare was $5, but the daily schedule —not including Sundays — was suspended with the end of tourist season, Will Michaels said in his book, The Making of St. Petersburg. On May 5, 1914, the airline was shut down.

Jannus died two years later while training Russian pilots over the Black Sea.

The Jannus spirit

His conversations veer to the metaphysical, with talk of infinite possibilities, synchronicity, channeling, angels and spirits. The suite he had professionally decorated when he was a bachelor is over the top. But where aviation is concerned, there's no quirkiness about Kermit Weeks, the ponytail-wearing founder of Fantasy of Flight.

It was almost four years ago that he promised a gathering of fellow aviation enthusiasts that he would fund, build and fly an authentic version of the Jannus plane to promote the centennial of the world's first scheduled airline flight.

His obsession for authentic details meant commissioning a built-from-scratch six-cylinder, two-stroke, 300-pound, 478-cubic inch engine.

"I'm in a very fortunate situation to do things right," Weeks, 60, told a captivated audience at the St. Petersburg Museum of History earlier this month.

"The biggest challenge was finding the material they had back then," said Steve Litten, president of Vintage Auto Rebuilds, the Chardon, Ohio, firm charged with building the engine through reverse engineering, copying from one of only six in the world.

A few weeks ago, fire extinguisher at the ready and ear plugs issued, Litten fired up the 21st century Roberts engine at Fantasy of Flight.

"The engine is very temperamental," he warned. "It's going to be a bit of a handful."

Weeks, who reveled in its sound, didn't seem concerned. An airplane buff at 8, he learned to fly as a teenager. At 20, he began competing in aerobatics and has won two U.S. championships.

In 1985, he opened Weeks Air Museum in Miami, quickly collecting more planes than could fit in the leased facility. Fantasy of Flight, on over 200 acres he owns in Polk City, opened in 1995 and boasts more than 140 vintage and rare aircraft, many restored to flying condition.

"I don't collect anything I don't intend to fly," said Weeks, who has the benefit of an inheritance.

His latest acquisition is Howard Hughes' 1937 Sikorsky S-43 Flying Boat.

Four years ago, he had predicted that the Benoist project would take two years and cost more than $300,000. But he has yet to total what he has spent so far, including for staff time on the project.

"The airplane materials were not that expensive," he said. "The engine was the big thing. That was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars."

The Jannus society recently gave Weeks an award, praising him for his commitment.

"He has got a very tremendous investment in this," said Michaels, co-chair of the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society and president of Flight 2014 Inc., the nonprofit group that is organizing the centennial.

"In many ways, to me, he represents the spirit of Tony Jannus. … It's not just the plane, it's him."

Up in the air

The Benoist re-creation will be trucked from Fantasy of Flight to St. Petersburg in several loads.

But with the deadline nearing, Weeks has other concerns as he and his staff work feverishly to complete the aircraft so he can test fly it and receive an airworthiness certificate from the FAA.

"We're so on edge about whether we are going to make it or not," said Weeks, who had hoped to test fly the plane by summer.

"I think we all bit off more than we could chew," he said late last week.

The passenger for the re-enactment is also uncertain.

"First of all, the airplane has to fly safely with me," he said.

Abe Phiel's great-grand-daughter has been suggested as a passenger.

"I have never talked to her," he said. "She may take one look at this noisy beast and say, 'No way in heck I'm going to go in that thing.' "

Should Weeks not be able to fly his plane, a contingency plan calls for Eddie Hoffman — 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.

And Weeks will settle for displaying the airboat he has built so meticulously.

"That's assuming I haven't crashed it," he said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.

   
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