Benoist, Jannus, and the Flying Boats of St. Pete

The story of Tony Jannus and the first commercial airline taking flight in St. Pete way back on New Years Day, 1914 is still celebrated and remembered in St. Pete today. The simple, oft-repeated story is noteworthy and somewhat eyebrow raising — “First Commercial Airline Route Right Here In St. Pete!” — but leaves out much of the interesting detail in this chapter of St. Pete’s history. Luckily, I am here to sum up a few of the tidbits that detail the success and failure of the people and events that shaped this story of St. Pete pride along with a few rare photos and details.

What was a Benoist Flying Boat?

You can easily build this plane at home.

Tom Benoist was an early aviation enthusiast. His name was French, and if you want to be super snooty at your next history event you will pronounce it “Ben-Whah.” He was an early auto industry magnate that became interested in aviation in roughly 1904 and got involved. He learned to fly himself, and over the next few years he started an aviation supply company in Missouri which he then turned into the Benoist Aircraft Factory. By 1911-ish along with the factory, he had also started a popular flight school for potential pilots. Benoist ran a successful operation and his planes were sold all over the US while pilots were trained in Missouri.

Benoist’s company had a typical model cycle that released roughly one new plane a year. The number after the model is quite simply the year the plane was introduced. The Benoist Type XIV was released… wait for it… in 1914.

The Flying Boat (hydroplane, technically) was not an unusual design in early aviation. There weren’t a whole lot of airfields around in the early days, so landing on water was actually a pretty good way to make sure there was generally somewhere to land your aircraft. The Type XIV was such a flying boat biplane design that had capacity for a pilot, one passenger, and a wee bit of cargo. It was reliable, and well-designed for the time.

Now A Couple More People and Some Drama

A guy you might not have heard of in the making of this story is Perceval Fansler. Fansler became familiar with Benoist and his air boats while following a popular newspaper article about Benoist and a pilot named Tony Jannus. Jannus was attempting a long distance flight from Omaha to New Orleans with many stops over 40 days in a Benoist air boat. The story was widely covered in national newspapers and was a complete success for Benoist and Jannus.

Fansler, a businessman living in Jacksonville, saw an opportunity to make some cash with this whole aviation thing after following the newspaper story of the trip noted above. He started writing letters to Benoist about his ideas. Fansler, in his own words, said:

“After receiving two or three letters that dealt with the details and capabilities of the boat, the idea popped into my head that instead of monkeying with the thing to give ‘jazz’ trips I would start a real commercial line running from somewhere to somewhere else.”

– P.E. Fansler, Florida Man Opportunist

Percy Fansler started peddling his idea around the state in late 1913. He first approached his own city of Jacksonville, which flat out said “No Thanks.” So he hopped on the train to Tampa, and pitched his idea there, suggesting a commercial line to St. Pete. He was rejected again, and the reason given highlights the very real rivalry between the two cities that of course has completely faded today (cough).

You see, Tampa businessmen and city officials did not care if people could easily travel between the two cities. You undoubtedly remember from your study of local history that the Pinellas peninsula had been part of Hillsborough County until 1911, when independent Pinellas County was born. Rivalry and even animosity dominated relations between the two counties after that. Tampa was the only place to go in the area according to Tampans, not the backwater and ungrateful St. Petersburg.

Finally, a Taker

An Ad for the Flights between the Cities!

So Fansler hopped on a train to the fairer side of the Bay and pitched the idea in reverse to the city of St. Pete. Here he found interest — St. Pete was at the time very isolated with long travel times off the Peninsula to anywhere.

Convinced by Fansler’s plan, several St. Petersburg community leaders, led by L. A. Whitney of the local chamber of commerce and future mayor Noel Mitchell, agreed to provide financial support for the creation of an airline service to connect the two cities, the subsidy lasting for three months.

That business model included scheduled flights to Tampa that could carry one passenger per trip, and some cargo, like mail and less weighty items. There would also be a Benoist flight school in the city, based at the Yacht Basin training people using Benoist Flying Boats kept in a hangar kinda floating in the basin. One thing about this you might not know, is that Jannus’ Type XIV was not the only hydroplane sent to the town – the training school needed planes as well. Four of the craft were sent to St. Pete, three by train to be assembled here, and one flown from St. Louis by Jannus himself.

To bring a somewhat lost figure back from the historical graveyard, I’d note that Fansler was really the guy that made all this happen. He worked with Benoist to supply the planes and pilots, took on the management and coordination of the St. Pete operations, and had sold the idea and brokered the deal with St. Pete. Fansler is the entire reason this all came to pass here in St. Pete. But of course just like a good band everyone remembers the front man. And that was none other than the celebrated pilot, Tony Jannus.

A rather unflattering dig at Tampa in the St Pete Times. Tampa ultimately made a huge mistake by rejecting the opportunity and it was not lost on the people of St. Pete.

Tony Jannus, Swagger-ish Pilot Brings Star Power

Just who was Tony Jannus? Some guy off the street without flying experience? Nah. He was the real deal; an early “Maverick” and celebrated pilot that had a few years of high-profile experience under his belt before his boss Tom Benoist sent him to St. Pete.

Tony. A Total Hit With The Ladies.

Jannus learned to fly after seeing a demonstration in 1910, and just became enamored with the concept of flight. He once said about his love of aviation:

“(It’s) poetry of mechanical motion, a fascinating sensation of speed, an abstraction from things material into an infinite space.”

Tony Jannus on his feelings about flying. Also his favorite pick up line.

He ended up working for Benoist before the St. Pete days as touched on above, and did a lot of demos and high-profile flights around the country. The goal of course was to help Tom Benoist sell airplanes and train pilots. After the deal was struck, in late 1913 Jannus got selected by Benoist to go to St. Pete as the star pilot for the start-up operation in the city. Jannus’ job was to work as the pilot for the St. Pete – Tampa line for the three month agreement.

Up, Up and Away

It was considered good luck in the early 1900s to start things on the first day of the year. To this point, the first scheduled flight between St. Pete and Tampa was scheduled for January 1st, 1914. Operations started on that day, and pretty much everybody in St. Pete came down to the Yacht Basin to hear the usual speeches and enjoy the spectacle of the first “paid” airline flight taking off. Percy Fansler, the man with the plan, said this in his speech:

“The Airboat Line to Tampa will be only a forerunner of a great activity along these lines in the near future. What was impossible yesterday is an accomplishment today, while tomorrow heralds the unbelievable.”

– Fansler, who was pretty much right on.

As you may be aware, Abe Pheil, former mayor of St. Pete, won the auction for $400 (about $10k today) to be Jannus’ passenger on that very first flight to Tampa. Noel Mitchell, a not-yet-crowned-and-later-recalled mayor of St. Pete was the second flight’s passenger, paying $175. The total amount for the flights that day went to pay for lights around the Yacht Basin.

Fansler at right, with AC Pheil standing next to Tony Jannus.
Here’s the $400 check. Conspiracy theorists may notice the year on the check as being 1913. Somebody call Mulder.

Pheil was dead set on being the first passenger, although he didn’t exactly tell his wife Lottie outright. She recounted her experience in finding out, you know, on the day of:

“He had talked about it for several days. He was dead set on going. I was home when the bidding was conducted for the honor of being the first passenger, and did not know that he had bid the highest. When I got there, he was in the plane about to take off. I was worried all the time he was gone.”

– Lottie Pheil, Unsurprisingly Uninformed By Florida Man Mayor Husband of Dangerous Thing

And maybe she had a right to worry. The hydroplane had fixable drive train problem on the way to Tampa, and Tony set the boat in the Bay. Pheil helped to fix the small-ish issue. When asked, Phiel said he had gotten his hands dirty during the delay “assisting Mr. Jannus to adjust some machinery.”

That said, the air boat could fly high, thousands of feet into the air, but the idea of the air boat was to operate just above the waves. This was considered safe, and this first flight was at a height of 50 feet, which was in fact even higher than usual for the air boat which normally floated just above the waves at an airspeed of around 65 mph.

Off go Jannus and Pheil, with a crowd of 3,000 watching.
Probably on the return from Tampa

Another interesting tidbit came the very next day, January 2 1914, when Jannus took the first female passenger up for a ride. Mae Peabody of Dubuque, Iowa, contracted for a charter flight before the airline’s scheduled morning trip to Tampa. The weather had been bad, with heavy winds. Jannus tried to dissuade Peabody from flying, but she insisted. For her perseverance, Mae Peabody earned the distinction of being the first woman to fly in St. Petersburg, as well as the first woman ever carried on the world’s first scheduled airline. There was no mention of an induction into the mile-high club, however.

A Huge Success, Except Financially

The three months were a success for flying, and St. Pete received national exposure. The airline didn’t have any major accidents, and hundreds of flights were taken by passengers to Tampa and thrill seekers who paid for local sightseeing tours. However, the airline made a very small amount of money that just covered its costs with the help of the subsidy. If only they’d learned to charge separate for baggage fees in those days! The flight school was also a modest success, and trained about five pilots in the three months but this wasn’t enough to keep the Benoist Aviation School afloat. So the chapter was brief, perhaps , but memorable and really helped to bring recognition to all involved.

This must have been something to see, pilot training in action. You can see the hangar in the basin, the Spa to the left.
Now you can’t even fly your drone down there without getting a ticket. Times have changed!

The Unfortunate Ending

If you enjoyed this story and don’t want to read any bad news, skip the next paragraph!

Tony Jannus was an early pioneer of flight. He was extremely successful, but his work was dangerous. After leaving St. Pete and parting ways with the Benoist company, Jannus became a test pilot for the Curtiss Aeroplane Company. In 1916, while training some pilots in Russia on one of their planes, an accident occurred in flight and the plane crashed into the Black Sea. Tony Jannus lost his life, and his body was never recovered.

An Enduring Legacy

It must be noted that Jannus was a famous flyer who died living his passion. His impact on the aviation industry cannot be overstated, and his contributions have been memorialized in the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society, formed in 1964 by the St. Petersburg and Tampa Chambers of Commerce. The Society annually recognizes an individual who has  “contributed to the growth and improvement of the airline industry” with the Tony Jannus Award. Past recipients include Sir Lenox Hewitt, Captain Edward V. Rickenbacker, Lt, Gen. James Doolittle, Brigadier General Charles “Chuck” Yeager, and Sir Richard Branson. The Society also works to “perpetuate the legacy of the world’s first commercial airline,” and to provide scholarships and support to college students pursuing careers in commercial aviation.

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