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Gathering gets preview of Tony Jannus' St. Petersburg to Tampa flight centennial

Published Jun. 15, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — The efficacy of flight was evident Thursday as a news conference about the centennial of the world's first scheduled passenger flight was delayed by a backup on the Howard Frankland Bridge.

The program at the St. Petersburg Museum of History was arranged to announce events to celebrate the Jan. 1, 1914, flight that Tony Jannus made in a Benoist airboat he piloted from St. Petersburg to Tampa and back. But the proceedings were delayed when some of the participants, including invited news media, were delayed on the bridge.

Jannus carried one passenger on the inaugural flight, a former St. Petersburg mayor, Abe Pheil. Plans are being made to re-create the flight two years from now. While organizers haven't decided who will be the passenger, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster drew chuckles when he volunteered his colleague from across the Bay, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, for the ride in what will be a reproduction of the wood and wire-braced plane.

On a more serious note, Chris Steinocher, president and chief executive officer of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, expressed hope that the centennial will be one of those things "that will bind us" together as a region once again.

The Jan. 1, 2014, re-enactment will be done with a reproduction of Jannus' Benoist, now being built at the Fantasy of Flight aviation attraction in Polk City. Kermit Weeks, creator and founder of the facility, brought parts of the plane for show-and-tell. Among them was the 34-inch-long wooden seat that will accommodate pilot and passenger.

"We are actually building an engine from scratch," he said during an interview. "To my knowledge, there are about six of that type of original engine in the world. We found one to borrow."

Star of the morning's event was Michael Norton of Seminole Heights, who portrayed a dashing Jannus, complete with requisite scarf and jacket and gauntlets of leather.

"It's a pleasure to be back in St. Petersburg," he said to those who milled around him. "I'm thrilled to see what you've done with it."

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

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