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Sculpture of St. Pete’s historic airboat moves to the Pier

The sculpture, commemorating the first commercial airline flight, will travel Tuesday from the artist’s studio.
Mark Aeling poses for a portrait in front of his sculpture of the Benoist airboat which will be installed at the Pier on Tuesday. The steel sculpture weighs about 16,000 pounds and is engineered to sustain hurricane-strength winds, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Mark Aeling poses for a portrait in front of his sculpture of the Benoist airboat which will be installed at the Pier on Tuesday. The steel sculpture weighs about 16,000 pounds and is engineered to sustain hurricane-strength winds, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Dec. 8, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — The World’s First Airline Monument, the final piece of major public art planned for the city’s new Pier, will be installed on Tuesday.

First, though, the 16,000-pound, stainless steel sculpture must complete a carefully choreographed pre-dawn journey from the 22nd Street S studio where it was fabricated to a site of worldwide significance on St. Petersburg’s waterfront.

The sculpture is a full-scale replica of the Benoist Airboat that launched the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, the world’s first commercial airline. It debuted to enthralled crowds gathered to witness the event at an earlier version of the Pier on New Year’s Day 1914.

Last week, artist Mark Aeling and his crew worked on the logistics of moving components of the sculpture, which include bronze figures of Benoist pilot Tony Jannus and the historic flight’s first paying passenger, former St. Petersburg Mayor Abe Pheil.

Mark Aeling's sculpture of the Benoist airboat which will be installed at the Pier on Tuesday. The steel sculpture weighs about 16000 pounds and is engineered to sustain hurricane-strength winds, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Mark Aeling's sculpture of the Benoist airboat which will be installed at the Pier on Tuesday. The steel sculpture weighs about 16000 pounds and is engineered to sustain hurricane-strength winds, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

It’ll take several trailers to transport the sculpture, separated into four sections, for the short journey downtown. The wings of the airboat replica, 45 feet long and weighing 6,000 pounds, will require their own trailer. Other components include the 26-foot-long fuselage, pylons that will hold the plane 25 feet above the plaza in which it is to be installed and a wrap-around “wave” or decorative cladding that will cover the supports.

“We’ve got everything worked out logistically and sequenced for the use of the crane,” Aeling said as he stood near the partially assembled sculpture outside his MGA Sculpture Studio at the ArtsXchange, in the Warehouse Arts District. “We’ll have another crane onsite when we get there. There’s a lot of planning involved.”

“The pieces are particularly complicated to install, because in order to make it more visually interesting, the fuselage of the plane sits at a 10-degree angle to the side and a 5-degree pitch back, so it looks like it’s banking,” Aeling said.

The sculpture, which will be illuminated at night, will rise above what will be known as the Benoist Centennial Plaza, named after Thomas Benoist, the aircraft manufacturer from St. Louis who was president of the historic airline and provided the aircraft and pilots. The Centennial Plaza, near Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille, is at the location of the original hangar on the Central Yacht Basin that has been recognized as an Aviation World Heritage site by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

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For those who have worked to bring prominence to St. Petersburg’s place in aviation history, Tuesday’s installation is a long-awaited milestone.

“It’s like a dream come true just to see everything come together to build this replica and tell the story of this first airline flight,” St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Ed Montanari said. “There were times when I wasn’t sure we were going to make it.”

Montanari, an American Airlines pilot, is a member of the nonprofit Flight 2014 Inc. — named for the centennial year of the first flight — that brought the plan to fruition.

The genesis of the project dates to about 2013, said Chris Davis, a former firefighter and St. Petersburg native. That’s when he ran into Ron Whitney, an employee in the city’s marketing department, who had an idea for commemorating the first flight’s centennial. Davis took the idea to Montanari, and the idea grew into something grand.

At the time, Montanari said, the only recognition of the historic event was at the St. Petersburg Museum of History and a plaque that looked like a gravestone near a dumpster on the Pier approach.

“I, we, believe this project will gain worldwide recognition, becoming destination travel for folks in the aviation industry,” Davis said. “It may be the impetus for some child’s future occupation, including astronaut.”

Montanari praised Will Michaels, president of Flight 2014, for getting behind the project, saying: “He has been our leader, keeping us on track and doing the heavy lifting.” That included fundraising for the $1 million commemoration.

The large wings of Mark Aeling's sculpture of the Benoist airboat which will be installed at the Pier on Tuesday. The steel sculpture weighs about 16000 pounds and is engineered to sustain hurricane-strength winds, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
The large wings of Mark Aeling's sculpture of the Benoist airboat which will be installed at the Pier on Tuesday. The steel sculpture weighs about 16000 pounds and is engineered to sustain hurricane-strength winds, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Cash donations have included gifts from a Pheil family member and a major contribution from the Bill and Kay McMannis Charitable Trust. Local companies contributed their expertise, including: Phil Graham Landscape Architecture, which donated design services for the plaza; Karins Engineering, structural engineering for the monument; and Hennessy Construction for the plaza.

Surprisingly, said Michaels, author of The Making of St. Petersburg, many people don’t know of St. Petersburg’s role as the birthplace of commercial aviation.

“It was the project of dreamers who used the airline technology and converted it to a business. It just took off and changed the world,” Michaels said. “It’s the story of human imagination and invention, and it could inspire us to deal with all of the other challenges we are dealing with right now. It’s an inspiring story that gives us hope.”

Aeling, a nationally renowned sculptor, began consulting on the project about five years ago and signed a $313,000 contract a year ago. Fabrication began in February, following intensive engineering and technical design.

“The biggest challenge of the project has been trying to keep the sculpture as accurate to the original design as possible. Because we’re making a sculpture of an airplane that was originally made out of wood and canvas out of stainless steel, the weight is very, very different. The other thing is, we don’t want it to fly,” he said, adding that it has been engineered to sustain 155 mile-per-hour winds.

Aeling expressed relief to have completed the project, but said it has given him a feeling of accomplishment.

“It’s been quite an undertaking,” he said.

“The monument will be a wonderful reflection of the history that was made in St. Petersburg,” Montanari said. “I started to learn to fly when I was 16. To see this monument get built and put together in my hometown, where I’m fortunate to serve as an elected official, from a personal point of view, it’s just gratifying.”

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