St Petersburg: “The sunshine city”, promise local brochures, and this is a fact: three hundred and sixty sunny days per year. Well we are in Florida, and certainly not in Russia…
Facing the small town, only separated by a sea inlet which actually shapes an elongated bay, Tampa: Thirty five miles of white sand…The Strawberry Festival in March, and the Pirate Festival in February (an old den for buccaneers, it was).
Between, limpid waters, two hundred different species of fish, and above and around, the most diversified variety of birds that one can find in Florida.
And this is precisely a strange bird that Antony Habersack Jannus gazes at, on this 1st of January 1914. Jannus: Not to be mixed up with Janus, the Roman deity who arranges and commands beginnings and new paths. Well, why not actually!
Eight o’clock in the morning, a clear sky, the ambient temperature still on the fresh side, that won’t last as the sun has risen and quietly ascends above the sea, which now glistens, short golden ripples shaped by a light breeze. A true postcard, with the famous blue sky of Florida as a premium! Towed to a light wood gangway which has been connected to the municipal jetty of Downtown St Petersburg, a Benoist XIV, serial number 43. Her name: “The Lark of Duluth”.
Thomas W. Benoist, born in Missouri in 1874, is an aircraft manufacturer since 1908. He is in fact the first ever aviation entrepreneur in the history of aviation. And he does not only build aircraft, he also flies them: he became in 1910 the first citizen of st Louis to receive a pilot’s license from “Aeroclub of America”.
This morning, another “first” seems to take shape, as testifies a crowd of curious people who occupy the jetty (St Petersburg Times journal will report three thousand onlookers, quite a number when considering that the town only cumulates four thousand and seven hundred citizens at that time. Benoist stands together with Jannus, who is his chief pilot, and has also actively participated to the construction of the aircraft. Both look at her, tenderly appreciating their little marvel, lazily balanced by peaceful wavelets, lightly nudging against the gangway, headed full north-east towards Tampa, on the opposite side of the bay.
As a matter of fact, three hours are needed to reach Tampa by train from St Petersburg which is lost, nobody remembers why, at the very edge of a barren peninsula bending between the Gulf of Mexico and the Bay of Tampa. And an infinite time with the steamboat… Before, the only option was a day horse ride! And now, thanks to these two young and entrepreneurial chaps, the travel could take considerably less time: Bird’s eye, only seventeen miles separate the two towns.
The Benoist XIV is a nice seaplane, with her elegantly shaped slender hull, hunched up and ready to spring out of the water, legendary wildcat equipped with biplane cloth wings, the lower one being fit out with small floats at each end.
« Departure time is 10.00, Tony », reminds Benoist, « … as soon as our passenger has arrived and is seated aboard, and he should arrive soon».
« Yes boss », obediently responds Jannus, « … and all will be fine», he adds, but for whom?
That is it, the first commercial flight in the whole history of aviation is about to be launched. The dawn of paying air travel!
And here he comes, the very first passenger (well there is only one, yes it is a beginning): The former mayor of St Petersburg, Abram C. Phiel, who vigorously shakes hands around, a well practiced exercise, - then assuredly jostles across the denser crowd who acclaims him. Benoist introduces Tony to him, who assists him to seat himself on the right seat.
« How long to reach Tampa? », asks the distinguished gentleman, who has cashed out a four hundred U.S. dollars cheque to the new airline for this historical but costly short hop. He actually is the number one passenger of a plane to pay a fixed price for being carried. Following flights will be priced five dollars per passenger, and the « St Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line », which had contracted on the 17th of December 1913 (anniversary day of the first flight of the Wright brothers) two Benoist XIV with their crew of two pilots each, this for a period of three months with two daily flights between the two towns, will succeed to balance the operation over that period.
«Twenty three minutes», tersely replies Jannus, self-assured. But mentally adding for himself: “God willing!”
He positions himself inside the plane, cramped against his passenger.
The wind blows from 060, not bad…
Jannus looks at Benoist, who reads his watch, a Breitling which never leaves him: five minutes before ten, time to go! Benoist rotates towards Percival Fansler, the operator of the route, who signals to wait. Impossible on this occasion not to deliver a short speech to the assembled crowd!
From left to right: Fansler, Pheil, Jannus
He then shows the sky with his pointed finger.
The mechanic launches the propeller, the 75HP engine starts smoothly and throbs happily. The moorings are cast off, a light wind drifts the biplane away to the left. Jannus gently blips the throttle. He leaves the gangway behind, sliding the aircraft away from the jetty where the crowd of onlookers roars enthusiastically, but the noise is concealed to him by the sound of the engine. He positions the aircraft into the prevailing wind, fully opening the throttle. The seaplane accelerates, slowly at first but quickly gaining speed, slicing the water and shaping two long foaming wakes, celadon green streaks that dissolve into the marine blue of the deeper sea.
The plane hops, strives to take off, but the sea will not relinquish her grip, seemingly not wanting to let her go. There it is, she lifts off a bit, splashes down, hesitates, and finally slips above, starting her slow ascend into the sky.
Ten feet above the surface, Jannus levels her so that to gain speed, then slowly turns to a north-east heading.
He then gently moves the stick towards him, just what is needed, a touch of rudder to the left, and the “Lark of Duluth” bravely climbs towards the Wild Blue, her unique paying passenger focusing his attention ahead, towards Tampa, still invisible and lost in the distance.
Jannus stabilizes at fifty feet, which he has decided will be his cruising altitude. Speed builds up and reaches seventy five knots. All good.
He turns his head towards Phiel, who smiles and draws a victory sign with his fingers. Well the customer is happy, this is all what counts!
The wind is whistling in the rigging lines, making conversation impossible. The sea is just under, ready to pull them to their watery graves: Jannus concentrates on keeping his height, a few seconds of inattention could be fatal.
The coastline appears, a light beige line that ends the sea. Then Tampa emerges. The jetty is crowded here too! Jannus throttles back, and the seaplane smoothly looses altitude. When close enough to the shore, he turns a bit to his right, to face the wind. The water rushes up. He flares a bit, just a bit. Iddle. The biplane splashes down and stops.
It took them twenty three minutes. As planned.
The Tampa tribune reporter sent to witness the event wrote on the next day issue : « Messr. Jannus and Pheil saluted and smiled ». All that simple.
Pierre de Fermor on Aviation International - October 2011