As we got further and further away, it (the Earth) diminished in size. Finally, it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger, it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man.
James B. Irwin, Apollo 15
As the holiday season approached in December of 1913, the workers looked forward to the upcoming time to be with family. Many ethnicities blended easily in our communities of West Tampa and Ybor City, but some celebrations remain as they have always been. The Spanish would celebrate Nochebuena and the Italian’s La Vigilia di Natale, while others celebrated Christmas and Hanukah. The workers do not want any controversial news at this time of year. It was a season of hope and cheer, and the workers were eager for release from the factories for a few days.
When the St. Petersburg Daily Times announced the scheduled airboat service between Tampa and St. Petersburg just before Christmas, people began lining up to buy tickets for the trip across Tampa Bay. This new service would begin on New Year's Day, 1914. I read with interest the story of the airboat. This was an exciting way to start the New Year and the perfect story for El Lector to share with the cigar workers.
I took the article and picture of the airboat to the lector’s platform to inform the workers that our “Cigar City” was about to make history. The workers stopped cutting and shaping cigars to look at the picture as it passed from hand to hand around the factory floor. “How does it work?” “Is it possible to fly off the water?” El lector was supposed to know the answers to those and other questions from the workers.
Knowing less about the subject than the St. Petersburg newspaper, I read from the article. The design of the Benoist airboat is from a boat hull with “rudders for steering the airboat right to left and directing its course up and down. Balance is accomplished utilizing ailerons, which are attached to the rear edges of the wings which stretch out fifteen feet to each side of the hull.” As I read that, I did not know what ailerons were but hoped to see the machine when it arrived here in Tampa, and I would seek an explanation.
The newspaper announced, “A new factor in transportation has come above the horizon, literally–and within a few days, the air above Tampa Bay and its tributaries will be filled with swiftly moving craft carrying passengers on a regular schedule, at rates little above those charged for land trips in hired automobiles.” It said, “This announcement made ten or even five years ago would have been looked upon as a hoax, smacking of Jules Verne…” The workers laughed and joked as they speculated on the coming of the airboat. “It will fall into the water!” was a frequent expectation.
This new “sport,” as it has been called, came about because Percival Fansler, a businessman from Jacksonville, was fascinated with air travel. He is a fan of an airman called Anthony Jannus, who made a name for himself last year by flying from Omaha to New Orleans, taking people into the air on exhibition trips. Fansler agreed with Tom Benoist of Benoist Aviation Company, for whom Jannus worked as a test pilot, to pursue the idea of scheduled air service. Benoist would build the craft, and Fansler would handle the business details.
Fansler first approached the city leaders in Jacksonville, promoting the advantages of having the aviation school and airboat line based there, but they did not think it worthwhile. Next, he came to Tampa with the same results. When he arrived across the bay in St. Petersburg, he found success. St. Petersburg sits at the end of a peninsular. To get to Tampa and most anywhere else, you could go by rail in about 8-12 hours or by steamer in a couple of hours. “The drive-by automobile was almost unthinkable given the state of the roads.” The prospect of making the 21-mile trip in about 20 minutes made sense. With the financial aspects quickly settled, the venture went rapidly forward. The business began with Fansler and Benoist as the businessmen, Tony Jannus and his brother Roger as pilots, and J.D. Smith as a mechanic with a few student pilots. The airboat was a Benoist model 13, number 43. It held the pilot and one passenger. Another larger aircraft would arrive later in January with a capacity of four passengers.
New Year's Day arrived on a Thursday. Excited and eager to see this new machine arrive in Tampa, I dressed as if for church and left my house early. I joined the crowd forming at the landing near the Tampa Electric power plant dock. I later learned about 3,000 people gathered here, on the Lafayette St. Bridge and the other side of the river. We watched the airboat splash into the water sending a spray of bay water into the air and the airboat. They then motored the craft to the makeshift dock while the crowd cheered and applauded the successful flight.
Mr. Jannus and his passenger, Mr. Pheil, a former mayor of St. Petersburg who won the privilege of being the first passenger on the new airboat line by bidding $400 for the seat, smiled obligingly for Mr. Burgert’s and Mr. Fishbaugh’s cameras. When they disembarked, the crowd gathered around Mr. Jannus, who wore a long duster, and Mr. Pheil, who had noticeably greasy hands. He explained to the group that he had assisted Mr. Jannus with the machinery. When asked if the trip was exciting, Mr. Pheil responded mildly that the trip “did not cause him any personal tension.” The trip took 23 minutes with speeds up to 70 mph, and they reached a height of 150 feet.
Curious, I looked over the airboat, noticing many names written on it. Someone explained to me that this was the machine used in exhibitions around the country, and the passengers all wrote their names here–an estimated 50,000 names. The names are so thick that the paint is hardly visible.
At 11:00 A.M., they climbed back into the machine and prepared to leave. The loud engine roared to life, drowning out calls of “Good Luck” and “God Speed.” They motored back out toward the bay to cheers and applause, and we watched the airboat lift from the water. The return flight took them around Hyde Park, passing close to Centro Español Sanitarium and crossing the Lower Peninsula between Ballast Point and Port Tampa and across Old Tampa Bay.
I went down to the dock to witness the afternoon flight and again the following day to see the arrival and departure. I envied those flying and planned to arrange a trip myself. As I watched the day's last flight disappear over the bay, I absentmindedly reached into my pocket and pulled out my pocket change. I counted 76 cents.
Closing my fingers around the coins, I raised my hand toward the spot on the horizon where the airboat disappeared and said to no one in particular, “I will go home and put this in a jar.”
AIRBOATS TO INDUSTRY
The airboat from St. Petersburg to Tampa is still considered the first passenger line in the world. The money from the auction on the first day was placed in a fund to purchase harbor lights for St. Petersburg. The second passenger that day paid $175.00 for the privilege of being the second passenger on the first day. After that day of “firsts,” the airboat would operate two round trips a day at a more affordable but costly price of $5.
Mrs. L. A Whitney, wife of the Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce of St. Petersburg, is recorded to be the first female passenger. She rode on the regularly scheduled morning flight on the second day of January. She described the trip as pleasant: being “rocked to sleep in your mother’s arms.” She was not the first woman to ride. Miss Mae Peabody, a winter visitor from Dubuque, Iowa, took a brief flight with Jannus around St. Petersburg and vowed to take another flight to Tampa soon.
It was trendy, and Benoist sent more aircraft and pilots to operate the passenger line. In addition to the regularly scheduled flights to Tampa, they also accepted charters to places such as Tarpon Springs and Clearwater. One enterprising grocer in St. Petersburg arranged a quick shipment from Tampa by air when he ran out of ham and bacon. He proclaimed his air shipment in an ad–“They may have come high, but the price is still low.” The three-month contract for the airboat service expired on March 31, 1914. It was not renewed. As the wealthy winter residents returned north and the population of St. Petersburg decreased, the demand for air travel to Tampa waned.
Even though they made no money on the venture, Percival Fansler and Tom Benoist considered it a success. They accomplished their purpose of proving that air travel could be a form of transportation for the future. Fansler and Benoist returned north, but Anthony and Roger Jannus continued to operate irregularly for about a month longer. Florida's sleepy west coast faded from the day's news when the airline folded.
Tony Jannus returned to Tampa the following year eager to start up again but needed help to get the business up and running again. Fansler was now working for an aircraft engine production company in the United States. The St. Petersburg Board of Trade would not support Jannus’ efforts to restart the service. After about a month of irregular flights, he gave up and returned home.
Of the various men responsible for the first scheduled air transportation, Tony Jannus was the one to receive the most fame, even though he probably would have done it to fly. The idea of creating scheduled air transportation was Fanslers. Benoist built the aircraft, and the St. Petersburg leaders were instrumental in making it happen.
Jannus continued to test pilot various aircraft and briefly went into an aviation company with his brother Roger. He met his death at age 27 in Russia along with two passengers when a plane he was testing crashed into the Black Sea in 1916.
His brother Roger went on to be a renowned pilot in his own right. Some have credited him with creating the maneuver for a pilot to correct the deadly tailspin. Captain Roger Jannus died in 1918, serving his country in World War I, when his plane exploded mid-air, killing him and a student. Roger Jannus was 32.
Tom Benoist, age 42, died in 1917 due to a streetcar accident.
In 1964, as part of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the inaugural flight of the Airboat Line, the Tampa and St. Petersburg Chambers of Commerce established the "Tony Jannus Award." The award is presented annually to individuals for contributions to the scheduled airline industry. This year celebrates the 43rd anniversary of that award.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2006
Art & Photography Contributors: Hillsborough County Public Library, Tampa Bay History Center, The Florida State Archives, The Tampa Tribune/Tampa Bay Times, University of South Florida Department of Special Collections, Ybor City Museum Society, private collections and/or writer.
Gail Ellis attended the University of South Florida, lived and worked in Tampa for 40 years. Devoting her time to writing now, she currently resides in New Port Richey, Florida. She told us the following, “Just so you know, you cannot get decent Cuban bread nor a cup of café con leche in Pasco County.”
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