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To the Benoists, the Tampa Bay celebration of flight is a moment of family pride

ST. PETERSBURG

To celebrate a key moment in the history of commercial aviation, flying enthusiasts were making last-minute preparations for today's scheduled flight of a classic replica aircraft.

To Charles "Chuck" Benoist, the commemoration of the first scheduled commercial flight is much more personal. It's about the way "Uncle Tom made history."

Benoist, 80, who lives on a farm in Bonne Terre, Missouri, is the nephew of Thomas Benoist, who supplied the airplane for the historic flight made 100 years ago today.

In that flight, pilot Tony Jannus flew the Benoist airboat from St. Petersburg to Tampa with a paying customer on board — considered the dawn of the commercial airline industry.

Chuck Benoist has come to Florida with about 20 family members to see today's celebration. A reproduction of that first airboat will taxi down the Vinoy Yacht basin, but it will not fly because of technical issues. However, another aircraft called the Hoffman X-4 mullet skiff will fly from St. Petersburg to Tampa.

Even though some family members were a bit disappointed that the hand-crafted reproduction of the Benoist won't fly, the 100-year anniversary and the sense of history made the trip worthwhile, said Debra Benoist Jarvis, 45, who is Benoist's great-great-niece.

"This is an event you just couldn't miss if you're part of the family," she said. "It's special. He did a lot for aviation, and it's unbelievable."

Jannus, the pilot who flew passengers across Tampa Bay in an era when the trip normally took a full day, still gets publicity a century later.

Benoist is perhaps less well-known, but he made the historic flight happen by manufacturing the seaplane at a time when aviation was in its infancy. His family marvels at how Benoist grew up in Missouri farm country, in a town called Irondale, and came to build flying machines.

"There wasn't any electricity or (running) water or anything out there," Benoist Jarvis said. "So you wonder where he got the idea to do that."

Chuck Benoist said he was born in 1933, years after his uncle died in 1917. But his own father — Thomas Benoist's brother — shared the family stories.

Chuck Benoist's grandson is John Marshall, 37, of St. Louis, who learned of his ancestor's contributions to aviation as a child but didn't fully appreciate them until he graduated from college and got an internship with the Smithsonian Institution, which owns a Benoist. Marshall got the opportunity to photograph it for the Washington, D.C.,-area museum, and along the way, began to admire Benoist airplanes more deeply.

Today, he will come back for the celebration with his grandfather and 5-year-old son, hoping to pass on the family's appreciation for the flight that crossed the bay a century ago.

Staff Writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8232. Twitter: @ckruegertimes.

. Fast facts

If you go

The program will begin at 9 a.m. in both St. Petersburg and Tampa. Aviation enthusiast 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 aircraft 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.

To the Benoists, the Tampa Bay celebration of flight is a moment of family pride 12/31/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 10:20pm]
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