ST. PETERSBURG — The city is counting on its next generation pier to make a splash on the world stage, a goal that could be boosted by a planned monument to showcase St. Petersburg's pioneering achievement in international aviation history.
In recognition of the world's first commercial airline — launched in 1914 from St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront — the monument will rise in the new Pier District on the site of the hangar of the inaugural flight.
It was on New Year's Day more than a century ago that pilot Tony Jannus, with former St. Petersburg Mayor Abe Pheil as his passenger, took off in a Benoist Airboat across Tampa Bay. More than 3,000 people gathered to witness the first flight of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line. The world's first airline owed its beginning to a collaboration of local business leaders, who helped aircraft manufacturer Tom Benoist finance the airline, and the city, which built the hangar.
"To me, this is an American success story, but you've got to give a lot of credit to the leaders at the time who were visionary," said City Council member Ed Montanari, a board member of the nonprofit group that is erecting the monument.
"You look at the very humble beginnings of a worldwide industry that connects people and places and cultures, and it all started right here in St. Petersburg," said Montanari, a pilot for American Airlines.
But for many years, a bronze plaque, forgotten behind a dumpster on the pier approach, was the only marker of the historic event.
The new tribute will rise in what will be known as the Benoist Centennial Plaza, at the site of the original hangar on the Central Yacht Basin from where the airboat made its first commercial flight. A replica of the Benoist Airboat will be suspended approximately 12 to 13 feet above the plaza.
"The plinth below the airboat will convey the idea of the airboat flying over the bay water," said Philip H. Graham IV, fifth generation of a pioneer St. Petersburg family, who is donating the design services of his firm, Phil Graham Landscape Architecture, for the plaza.
"The plaza will be a place that can provide a link to the historical events. We will have storyboards that walk visitors through the historical event and the story will come to life with the full-size airboat. Visitors will be able to walk around and underneath the sculpture."
The $750,000 project — which is still in the fundraising mode — is being spearheaded by Flight 2014 Inc., the nonprofit group that takes its name from the centennial year of Jannus' round-trip flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa and back.
Will Michaels, Flight 2014 president, said the city's board of trade, predecessor of the chamber of commerce, and city officials had viewed the new airline from a practical standpoint. It would greatly reduce travel time between St. Petersburg and Tampa and be a tourist draw.
"It was a small local community that embraced this technology from the start," said Michaels, author of The Making of St. Petersburg.
And, he said, they did what the First Flight group is doing now, "passing the hat" to make the project possible.
More than $500,000 has been raised for the "World's First Airline Monument Project," with the most recent donation coming in the form of a $100,000 "challenge grant" from Raymond James Financial. The project also is being supported by the airline industry, businesses, a member of Mayor Pheil's family and individuals who have given donations of $25, Michaels said.
Recently, Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the pilot who successfully landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River off Manhattan in 2009 after both engines were disabled, joined the project's honorary advisory board.
The plaza is expected to be finished in time for the pier opening, now scheduled for the spring of 2020.
A request for proposals from Tampa Bay artists has been issued for the Benoist Airboat sculpture.
The monument will be an important recognition not just for St. Petersburg, "but something for the region to be proud of," Michaels said.
"Our goal is when people think of St. Petersburg, they should be thinking, oh, that's the birthplace of worldwide commercial aviation. The monument will tell that story and it is a representation of the spirit of the city today."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.