Plans for Jannus centennial include commemorative flight

Published Jun. 14, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — It has been almost 100 years since more than 3,000 people crowded the city's waterfront to witness the takeoff of the world's first scheduled passenger flight.

The Benoist airboat piloted by Tony Jannus carried one passenger, a former St. Petersburg mayor, Abe Pheil, who made the winning $400 bid for the inaugural hop to Tampa.

Plans to celebrate the centennial of the historic flight will be announced today at the St. Petersburg Museum of History. The public is invited to the 11 a.m. program, which includes a Tony Jannus impersonator and a closeup of the life-size Benoist model that normally hangs from the waterfront museum's ceiling.

The more than yearlong celebration will begin in earnest next fall. A highlight will be a re-enactment of the 1914 New Year's Day flight in a reproduction of Jannus' plane. The plane is being built at the Fantasy of Flight aviation attraction in Polk City.

"We are building it as close as we can surmise through research, because no drawings or original airplanes of the same model exist," said Kermit Weeks, creator and founder of Fantasy of Flight.

Weeks said the reproduction will be made of wood, wire-braced and covered with fabric.

Organizers of the Jannus celebration have launched a petition drive to get a postage stamp to commemorate the centennial ( Plans for the event include exhibits and educational programs at the St. Petersburg Museum of History and Tampa Bay History Center, a First Night celebration and a Jannus theme at the annual Fun 'n Sun air show in 2014.

It's actually not too soon to begin revving up for the celebration, said Will Michaels, president of the Flight 2014 organizing board, a group that includes representatives from the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society, St. Petersburg Museum of History, Florida Aviation Historical Society and St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn will serve as honorary co-chairmen of the centennial.

"The launching of the world's first airline from St. Petersburg was a momentous event," Michaels said.

Jannus took off on his historic flight near the Municipal Pier. Newspaper accounts said police had to hold back the crowds. The 21-mile flight to Tampa — the Benoist landed on the Hillsborough River near downtown — took 23 minutes. The St. Petersburg Times, which had a contract with the airline, began airlifting newspapers to Tampa the following day. For three months, the new airline ran two scheduled flights a day, six days a week. Noting that flight was still a novelty, the Evening Independent said trade for the airline dried up with the end of the tourist season.