From St. Petersburg to Tampa, a flight of 'the human spirit'

Published Jan. 2, 2014

Rain pelted down on hundreds of onlookers, but it couldn't stop history from roaring to life and soaring across Tampa Bay, as lovers of aviation cheered the re-enactment of what just might be this area's most significant event.

On the 100th anniversary of the first scheduled commercial flight in history, pilot Eddie Hoffman Jr. on Wednesday fired up a replica aircraft, circled over the Pier in St. Petersburg and flew to Tampa's Peter O. Knight Airport.

Among those cheering on both sides of the bay were St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman, Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano and legendary pilot Tony Jannus.

Well, actually the "Jannus" who appeared in St. Petersburg was historical actor Michael Norton, dressed to look like the man who flew the first commercial flight across Tampa Bay on Jan. 1, 1914.

But this was a day for mixing past with present, a day that allowed visitors to peer through rain-specked glasses at the daring and danger of a time when all aviation could fairly be called experimental.

Overall, it was "more about the human spirit," said Kermit Weeks, the aviation entrepreneur who is bankrolling a painstakingly crafted reproduction of the Benoist airboat that made the original flight.

Weeks and other organizers of the commemoration had hoped to fly that reproduction on the century anniversary, but the aircraft wasn't ready Wednesday. Still, it was on hand beside the St. Petersburg Museum of History so people could peer into the cockpit and admire the construction.

The plane that did fly Wednesday was a different aircraft, a seaplane called the Hoffman X-4 mullet skiff that has been used in previous reenactments.

Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who wrote a book on St. Petersburg history, said the 1914 flight might very well be "the most significant event in St. Petersburg history." It was a culmination of the cutting-edge Benoist aircraft, the acumen of local business and political leaders and the know-how of Jannus. "The whole thing came together in St. Petersburg," he said.

The 2014 flight also was impressive to Shannon Piquet, an 11-year-old who came from Pinellas Park with her mother to see the replica airplanes and photograph them for a 4-H project. "It's a very historic day," she said.

Many speakers and sponsors pointed to the significance of the flight in Tampa Bay history. The rain gave them ample material.

"To the Benoist family, welcome to the Sunshine State," said Foster, the outgoing St. Petersburg mayor. He added that when the Benoist reproduction flies to Tampa, it will carry a plaque with a key to the city, which he showed to the crowd. "Mayor Buckhorn has always wanted a key to St. Petersburg," Foster said, referring to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

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After Hoffman landed on the Hillsborough County side of the bay, airport CEO Lopano spoke of Jannus' impact on the business he runs today.

"That great adventure has led to us now having international flights around the world," he said. "I say let's give Tony Jannus a round of applause."

He asked for a round, too, for Hoffman, who flew 60 mph with an open roof through the rain.

Hoffman's father also built the Benoist replica that hangs from the ceiling at the St. Petersburg Museum of History. Hoffman carried pictures of his father with him on Wednesday's trip and held up the soggy photos for the crowd afterward.

Did he ever consider not taking the flight in those conditions?

"It was like, what would my father do?" he said. "Dad would have gone."