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Airplane buff revs up for Tony Jannus re-enactment flight

Kermit Weeks, center, and his crew fit a custom-built six-cylinder, 75 horsepower engine into the Benoist’s reproduction wooden airframe on Wednesday afternoon at Fantasy of Flight in Polk City.
Published Dec. 12, 2013

POLK CITY — Kermit Weeks' goal has been to create an authentic version of the Benoist airboat flown by legendary pilot Tony Jannus in his historic New Year's Day hop across Tampa Bay almost a century ago.

For Weeks, founder of the Fantasy of Flight attraction in Polk County, where vintage and rare aircraft attract thousands of visitors, that meant commissioning a built-from-scratch engine that matched the one in Jannus' plane.

Wednesday, he showed off the six-cylinder, two-stroke, 300-pound, 478-cubic inch engine, issuing ear plugs to help mute the ear-splitting reverberations of the fired up machine.

"I think when I start in St. Pete, they will know I'm coming in Tampa," he joked.

Weeks will pilot his reproduction Benoist in a Jan. 1 re-enactment of the 1914 Jannus flight that launched the world's first scheduled commercial airline.

Those gathered at Fantasy of Flight Wednesday, among them members of the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society, were impressed with the demonstration of the Ohio-made engine.

There was also excitement about the handcrafted wood, fabric and wire-braced Benoist reproduction emerging onsite.

But much still must be done, said Weeks. With deadline pressure mounting, there is a contingency plan in place, he said late last week, if the Benoist reproduction isn't ready.

The backup plan calls for flying an amphibious flying boat called a Hoffman X-4 mullet skiff. It was flown in 2000 to commemorate the 86th anniversary of the Jannus flight. Either way, nature could ground the flight scheduled to take off near the St. Petersburg Pier.

"Weather could shut both of us down," Weeks said.

But fellow members of the Aviation Society, who recently honored Weeks with a special award, are counting on the man they believe personifies the spirit of Tony Jannus. They praised him for his commitment to research, fund, re-create and fly a reproduction of the Benoist.

"I'm awed," said Will Michaels, co-chair of the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society and president of Flight 2014, which is planning the celebrations.

"Kermit and Fantasy of Flight, they are doing a tremendous public service to the Tampa Bay area," Michaels said. "He's helping to put Tampa Bay on the map as the avant garde of commercial aviation."

Weeks said he has spent about $35,000 just on materials, a sum that does not include the engine.

"That was unbelievably expensive," Weeks said. "The whole project is into hundreds of thousands of dollars. "

The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line launched by Jannus' Jan. 1, 1914, flight, ran between St. Petersburg and Tampa for a little over three months. But history was made.

Jannus carried just one passenger on the inaugural flight, a former St. Petersburg mayor, Abe Pheil. Weeks isn't certain who will share the plane's 34-inch seat with him. He is leaning toward Abe Pheil's great-granddaughter, who he said is 21 years old and small.

"She would be an obvious choice," Weeks said. "It basically breaks down to two 16-inch butts."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

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