December 13, 2021 |

Unknowing Pioneers and the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line

Benoist Model

Just over a decade after Wright Brother’s first flight at Kittyhawk, North Carolina, aviation had yet to find practical use. Barnstormers traveled the countryside in search of passengers but the airplane and allure of the adventurous goggled pilots who flew them were still a mere novelty to the public. But as Antony H. Jannus and Abram C. Phiel boarded the flying boat Lark of Duluth on 1 January 1914, they were about to change the world.

Taking off in the Benoist Model XIV airboat from the central yacht basin, Jannus skimmed the surface of the waves before the keel of the boat leapt from the surface of the water. During the flight, Jannus never left ground-effect and even landed once to tune the seventy-five horsepower Roberts engine that powered the craft. They cruised at a relatively quick sixty-four miles per hour, totaling twenty-three minutes of flight time and landing on the western shore of the Hillsborough River in Tampa near the Tampa Electric power plant.

Originally conceived by marine engine salesman Percival E. Fansler and St. Louis aircraft manufacturer Thomas Benoist in December of 1913, the airboat line’s formal contract was signed on the 10th anniversary of the Wright Brother’s December 17th Kitty Hawk flight. Fansler drummed up support from twelve local business owners and the necessary capital which was then matched by the city as a subsidy. The airplane shaved the time required to go around the bay by nearly 12 hours, bringing new efficiency to cross-bay travel. The maiden flight of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line was watched by over 3,000 excited onlookers from the Municipal Recreation pier. For most of the spectators, this would be their first glimpse of aviation; the curiosity was palpable as they congregated at the waterfront to see former mayor Abe Phiel become the world’s first paying airline passenger.

Florida Aviation Hall of Fame

Phiel had won an auction for the honor of being the world’s first airline passenger, and proceeds from the $400 ($11,064 adjusted for inflation 2021) ticket were used in part to install two harbor lights in the yacht basin. Two weeks later on January 13th, one of the airline’s Benoists also became the world’s first air cargo flight when a Swift & Co. butcher in Tampa ordered for delivery a fifty-pound shipment of choice deli meats, “one case of premium hams and bacon [on the morning boat]” and “Five cases of ham to follow on the evening boat.”

The line fulfilled its contract which stipulated two flights a day, six days a week for three months. Outside of the scheduled service, Jannus also provided chartered flights for local businesses, such as the Hotel Belleview near Clearwater. The airboat line folded soon thereafter as the subsidy ran out as otherwise, the line was not profitable. Scheduled aviation would not grace south St. Petersburg’s waterfront again until the opening of Albert Whitted Airport in the summer of 1929.

Be sure to visit the Florida Air Museum’s exhibit of Florida: The Cradle of Commerical Aviation to see more mentions of the Benoist. Between the 1914 flight of the Benoist in St. Petersburg, to the founding of Pan American in Key West, Florida has always been on the forefront of Commercial Aviation history.

Submitted by Glenn Gallagher

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