Sunday, January 4, 2015

First Airline Flight in America - 101 years later

You are looking at a very significant moment in aviation history, and one that has been almost forgotten. On January 1, 1914, almost exactly 101 years ago, Anthony "Tony" Jannus, with passenger Abraham C. Pheil sitting next to him, landed in Tampa Bay in this Benoist XIV, marking the inaugural flight of the very first scheduled airline service in the United States, and the first scheduled airline service in the world to use heavier-than-air craft.

The carrier was the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line (or SPT Airboat Line), which had been organized by Paul E. Fanzler (sometimes spelled Fansler), a business associate of aircraft manufacturer Thomas Benoist, and the new company received its charter from the St. Petersburg Board of Trade on December 17, 1913, the 10th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight. The contract was for a three-month period, during which the Board of Trade guaranteed that it would cover up to 50% of the expenses for running the airline not met by revenues. Flight time to cover the 18 miles between the two cities was a mere 23 minutes, which was an astounding leap for Floridians, as the equivalent trip by boat was over two hours, and by railroad took over eleven hours.

Pheil (left) and Jannus (right) wave just before alighting.
Pheil, a former mayor of St. Petersburg, had paid a princely ticket fare of $400, which, according to this calculator, is the equivalent of $9,321.96 in today's dollars! A whopping fare for an 18-mile hop, but then again, he could forever lay claim to the title of First American Airline Passenger. The normal advertised fare was $5 for the one-way flight, and that included you and your carry-on, both of which couldn't weigh more than 200 pounds together; if a passenger's weight exceeded that, overage charges of 25 cents per every five pounds was charged...consider that when you think about how airlines do things today! SPT Airboat Line advertised a schedule of two round-trips per day (see the link below to their schedule).

Thomas Benoist of St. Louis, Mo.was possibly one of the most shrewd of the early aviation pioneers. There's an old saw that the only people who really made money from the 1849 California Gold Rush were those who sold shovels and whiskey - and Benoist was the equivalent of the shovel salesmen to the new aeronautics industry. Benoist had initially made his money selling automobile batteries and starters, and in 1907, he and a partner set up the Aeronautical Supply Company, or Aerosco, to sell the raw materials to all the inventors and entrepreneurs who were trying to take to the air. Initially, they dealt in the wood and fabric raw materials, but eventually bought licenses to offer planes designed by the Wrights, Curtiss, Blériot and Farman in kit form; he also opened a flight school to teach all the eager students how to fly. Eventually, Benoist realized he could do those designers one better, and started designing and selling his own planes, and the whole operation was renamed Benoist Aircraft Company. Tony Jannus joined the company in November 1911 as their chief pilot.

In 1913, Benoist built two Model XIV flying boats, very similar in design to the Curtiss Model E. Named the Lark of Duluth and the Lark of Florida, the two planes were used for barnstorming for a while, until Fanzler secured the contract with St. Petersburg for the airline.

Unfortunately, as revolutionary as the air service was, and despite the fact that the airline carried 1,204 passengers without incident (and lost only four days' flying due to mechanical failures), that just wasn't enough to meet the expenses, and the Board of Trade declined to subsidize the service beyond the original three-month contract. The airline continued to operate for another five weeks, but the lack of winter "snow bird" tourists hurt, and the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line made its last flight on May 4, 1914.

The Lark of Duluth was then sold, and was operated carrying thrill seekers on Conneaut Lake, Penn. until it crashed in July 1914. Only the engine was salvagable.

Jannus left Benoist shortly thereafter, and became a test pilot for Curtiss. He was killed on October 12, 1916 when the Curtiss H-7 flying boat he was demonstrating to the Russians crashed into the Black Sea near Sevastopol, Russia. His body was never recovered. Today, the Tony Jannus award is presented annually to notables in the airline industry. And in Tampa International Airport, the only American airport terminal to house a micro-brewery, one can buy a Tony Jannus Pale Ale, brewed on-site at the airport.

Sometimes the story of a photograph isn't just what's depicted, sometimes it includes the actual physical print, as well. Such is the case with this photo of a Benoist XIV in Tampa, Florida.
Our print was originally printed on Kodak AZO RPPC paper (and printed upside down, too). Kodak had revolutionized the post card industry when it started manufacturing its paper, because photographers, pro and amateur alike, could make contact prints easily and cheaply, and then use them to mail the photos to friends and family, or sell them commercially. But, because of the size of the paper and its relatively low cost, it was also ideal for use by photographers to make proofs of their work, before enlarging them. This appears to be the case here.

Our copy of the image was cut down on the left side, and there are publication crop lines added by a photo editor. Interestingly, the State of Florida's Library and Information Services web site has a digital copy of the 8x10 press photo on file, which appears to have used the crop of our original. The caption that the Florida site includes reads, "Triumphant pilot Tony Jannus waves as he lands in Tampa on the first leg of that first regularly-scheduled airline flight in 1914."

What our copy appears to have been was the original proof that was printed from the negative, on which the guidelines were drawn to show the developer how to print the 8x10 glossies which would then be sent out as press photos (the State of Florida's source print being one of these).

And one footnote: On July 16, 2013, a replica of the Lark of Duluth crashed into Duluth's Superior Bay.

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