ST. PETERSBURG — The final design of a monument to commemorate a historic moment in St. Petersburg and world aviation history was approved by the City Council Thursday.
A full-scale replica of the Benoist Airboat that took off from downtown St. Petersburg on New Year’s Day 1914, with a former mayor as its passenger, will honor the launch of the world’s first airline. The monument will go up at the site of the original hangar on the Central Yacht Basin.
The takeoff area of the historic commercial flight, on the southwest corner of the city’s new 26-acre Pier District, has been declared an Aviation World Heritage site by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
The monument featuring a replica of the airboat, with figures of pilot Tony Jannus and his passenger, former St. Petersburg Mayor Abe Pheil, is being created by St. Petersburg artist Mark Aeling and is expected to be finished by August. The project, a combination of the Benoist sculpture and the plaza from which it will rise, will cost an estimated $1.2 million, much of it raised locally.
“It’s exciting to get to this milestone,” said Will Michaels, president of the nonprofit group Flight 2014 Inc., named for the centennial year of the first flight of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line. “It’s the kind of symbol that will go far in making this inspiring story known to more people. It’s a great story about the city, as well, which rallied to the idea of an airline and supported it in every way."
Council Chair Ed Montanari, a Flight 2014 board member and longtime commercial pilot, was elated Thursday. “The project is very near and dear to my heart,” said Montanari, who has been involved with the project from its inception.
That New Year’s Day 106 years ago, more than 3,000 spectators packed the downtown waterfront to witness the inaugural flight take off with Jannus and Pheil on the St. Petersburg-Tampa round-trip.
Aeling, whose MGA Sculpture Studio is in the Warehouse Arts District, is working with engineer Bud Karins.
“This project is just incredibly complicated. We’ve got an object, its original design was incredibly lightweight. It was not designed for the wind force that we have,” Aeling said. “We want to stay true to the original aesthetic ... To do that and have it be structurally sound, is a huge engineering challenge.”
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Theirs is “a wonderful collaboration,” Aeling said of his work with Karins, founder of Karins Engineering in St. Petersburg. “We've been working hard to figure how to make this thing work. The result has been very successful.”
The airplane sculpture, which has a wingspan of 45 feet and will rise more than 20 feet, including base elements, will be installed in what will be known as the Benoist Centennial Plaza. The plane is being made with surgical-grade stainless steel. The figures of Jannus and Pheil will be cast in bronze.
“It’s a huge honor to be asked to make this piece. All contemporary society is heavily influenced by what commercial aviation has brought to our social structure, and it originated right here in St. Petersburg,” said Aeling, whose public art includes Gladiolus, an eye-catching piece in front of St. Petersburg’s new police headquarters, and Shielded, in its lobby.
“To be the artist that is chosen to create or manifest that monument is a feather in my cap, and I’m very grateful to be chosen,” he added.
Karins, whose wife, Joan, is on the board of Flight 2014, has long been involved in the project. He donated his engineering services for the monument’s concrete foundation and then became involved in engineering the sculpture itself.
“This is an airplane that replicates the wood airplane, and all the stainless steel pieces are welded together,” Karins said. “We set out doing all the structural design. We started with the wings, assembled as one piece." The monument that is being made to withstand a Category 2 hurricane.
The plaza has been designed by Philip H. Graham IV. Visitors will be able to walk around and underneath the sculpture, sit on sandstone walls and read storyboards that tell of the historic flight. Bronze plaques will be displayed on a 5-foot wall.
“Right now, all of the concrete is in place for the plaza and all the pavers, hex blocks that are meant to be indicative of the historical sidewalks of St. Petersburg," he said, adding to that a 2-foot-high plinth below the airboat will convey the idea of the plane flying over the bay.
"The plinth is covered with a tabby shell stucco with a rare blue stone on top surrounding the base of the sculpture to emulate the bay waters, “ Graham said.
The Flight 2014 group raised about $1 million for the project, but Michaels points to “very significant” in-kind contributions from Karins Engineering, Hennessy Construction and Phil Graham Landscape Architecture.