Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Fastest Hydroaeroplane of 1912

A couple of weeks ago, we featured a photo of a Benoist XIV which was the first airliner in America. But before Thomas Benoist (pronounced Ben-wah) built his flying boat, he had experimented with mounting a biplane originally designed as a Landplane on a large float. The design was an instant success, and our photo shows pilot Tony Jannus beginning a takeoff run during the 1912 Chicago Hydro Meet. But I get ahead of myself...and how this plane came to be is a fun story.
Tony Jannus in the Benoist XII begins his takeoff run at the 1912 Chicago Hydro Meet

The Benoist Model XII (because it was first introduced in 1912) was Benoist's first original aircraft design. Before it, Benoist's factory had license-built aircraft from other designers, including the Wrights, Glenn Curtiss and Bleriot. Disaster had struck in 1911, when the St. Louis factory caught fire and burned to the ground, destroying five complete aircraft, as well as a wealth of parts and supplies...and it was completely uninsured.

Undetered, Thomas Benoist pressed forward with the Model XII project. In its original configuration, the XII was a "headless" open-frame pusher design, similar to Wright Model B and the headless-version of the Curtiss Model D. Benoist followed Curtiss in using interplane ailerons to try to avoid infringing on the Wright's patent, which claimed ownership of all designs that used changing of the angle of incidence of the wings for lateral control (the Wrights had successfully defended wing-warping as well as wing-mounted ailerons as their invention in court; Curtiss had pioneered the use of interplane ailerons as a way around the Wright's lock, but in 1913 a patent judge had ruled that even this method was proprietary to the Wrights). But unlike Curtiss' interplane ailerons which were hinged, Benoist's design fixed the inboard ends of the spring steel-framed surfaces to the interplane struts and used cables to twist the outboard ends. The Model XII was powered by a Roberts 75-hp six-cylinder liquid-cooled engine, a widely-used boat engine of the time.

On February 29, 1912 (some sources say March 1), Benoist's chief pilot, Tony Jannus (who some sources credit with co-designing the Model XII) carried US Army Capt. Albert Berry in a Model XII to an altitude of 2,000 feet over Jefferson Barracks, MO, at which point Berry jumped out to become one of the first people in history to successfully use a parachute (there is a bit of controversy of who actually was first...Berry's jump was well documented as an Army test, but there are some who claim that a man named Grant Morton successfully parachuted over Venice Beach on April 28, 1911. The uncertainty comes from the fact that the records are inconclusive as to whether this happened in 1911, or on April 28, 1912). The success of the jump helped to promote the idea of using the new technology to send soldiers covertly into combat from the air, but getting out of the airplane was the tough part. It became quickly apparent to Benoist and Jannus that exiting the plane would be much easier if the engine was upfront in a tractor configuration, and the soldier sat behind the wing, astride a narrow fuselage.

So the Model XII design was reworked to incorporate an enclosed Bleriot-style fuselage. When Benoist first conceived of the XII, he figured that one of the big markets for the type would be exhibitions, and so designed it to be modular and easily disassembled for rail transport. This, it was a relatively simple thing to take it apart and redesign how the modules fit together, adding a new fuselage. The original radiator (which had previously had been mounted just behind the pilot) now sat out front, partially blocking the pilot's forward visibility. Because the redesign was an attempt to meet a need of the Army, Benoist called it the Model XII Military Plane. First flight of the new configuration was at the end of March at St. Louis' Kinlock Field.

A couple of months later, the design was refined again, this time with the fuselage being expanded so that the pilot and passenger sat down in it, rather than on top of it, and in this configuration, Benoist marketed it as the Model XII Cross Country Plane, also known as the Landplane. When it came to experimenting with turning the Landplane into a float plane, rather than redesign the undercarriage, Benoist took a Model XII (there is some indication that it was Factory No. 35) and simply mounted it, skids and all, on a wide single flat-bottom stepped float during the summer of 1912.

In September of that year, Chicago played host to the Hydro Flying Meet. A year earlier, the 1911 Chicago International Aviation Meet had been a huge success, and like that meet, the 1912 edition included events for hydroaeroplanes  at Grant Park on Lake Michigan. After the successes Benoist and Jannus enjoyed flying from the lakes and rivers around St. Louis, it was a natural thing to take the plane to Chicago...winning, or even just doing well there, would result in national media attention, and a lot of free publicity.

Entrants competed in a number of events, as well as an overall best-of competition. Jannus and the Model XII won both the endurance and the speed competitions, and took second overall. Buoyed by that success, Benoist and Jannus decided they needed to keep the media attention coming, and so planned an event that would keep the press talking about their hydroaeroplane. A year earlier, an attempt had been made in a Curtiss to fly the length of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, but the attempt had been abandoned. For a Benoist to succeed at what a Curtiss had failed to accomplish would be a coup indeed.

The journey started on November 6th at Omaha, Nebraska, and Jannus headed south (mechanic J. D. Smith followed on the ground). During the next 40 days, Jannus flew 1,973 miles over water - establishing a new over-water world distance record - and performed 42 exhibitions at towns along the route. The flight was not without its difficulties, as Jannus suffered a bout of appendicitis, and there were the usual mechanical breakdowns. At one point, they suffered a near-disasterous fire.

The flight was supposed to also set a mark as the first ever delivery of beer by air. Benoist had lined up a number of sponsors for the flight, one of which was the Lemp Brewery, the St. Louis manufacturer of Falstaff Beer. A case of Falstaff was thus ceremoniously loaded onboard the Model XII as a gift to be presented to the Mayor of New Orleans at the end of the trip. As legend has it, however, at the end of the first day of flying when Jannus met up with Smith, the pilot was feeling no pain, and well into his 12th bottle of Falstaff. When Smith asked what they would do about the Mayor, Jannus supposedly said not to worry, that the case flew much better empty.

Finally, though, Jannus arrived in New Orleans on December 16th (one day before the 9th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight - a lot had changed in only nine years!), and he presented the Mayor with his (supposedly) empty beer case and was celebrated as a hero with his own parade through the city.

The Model XII was then sold to a new owner in New Orleans, and between the sale and the revenue generated by the exhibition flying, the Benoist company made over $17,000 on the stunt, not to mention garnering invaluable press coverage. This Missouri Historical Societ website includes a photo which appears to show the final fate of the Benoist Model XII Hydroaeroplane, although it doesn't include any information on the incident.

One of the five original Benoist XIIs, Factory No. 32, has survived, and is preserved in the collection of the National Air & Space Museum.

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