Johnny Green: St. Pete’s Forgotten Flier

I bet you’ve heard of Tony Jannus. The swaggering, superstar pilot of St. Pete flew his airboat across Tampa Bay to open the first commercial air route in 1914 with his paying passenger, former Mayor Abe Pheil. And the rest is history — a replica of his airboat hangs in the St. Pete Museum of History; Jannus Live, a popular venue still uses his name, and countless historical writings sing his praises. I’ve written about him as well — Check that article out here. He deserves every bit of press and praise he ever received.

But Jannus’ stay in St. Pete was fairly brief – just two seasons. This didn’t mean that the nascent airboat industry in St. Pete wasn’t popular – it was. The majority of income of the flying operations was in sightseeing tours above the city, performing in various festivals doing flyovers, and operating flight training operations. After the 1915 season, though, Jannus departed along with the Benoist company that employed him. A new flier was needed.

Heeeeeere’s Johnny!

Hailing from Chattanooga Tennessee, Johnny Green had an impressive resume that included several “firsts”. Johnny was an early pioneer of aviation and one of the first pilots in Tennessee, achieving fame especially due to being the first airman to fly over Lookout Mountain in 1913 (See Rock City and Ruby Falls, y’all!). A couple years before that he’d made the country’s first night flight, and he regularly performed on a southern exhibition circuit in all kinds of events — stunts and flying thrill seekers were his specialty and he a featured draw in advertising the shows. Green was a real-life barnstormer who was known as a fearless daredevil and his early career before he arrived in St. Pete was documented regularly in Tennessee newspapers. The “birdman” stayed in the news with tales of his bravado, stunts, and a fair share of accidents. Apparently, crashing a plane in the early 1900s was a fairly regular thing, and Green remained unfazed by his own share of misadventures. He also, interestingly, happened to catch a runaway horse in downtown Chattanooga one day, which I suppose surprised no one. Here are a few snippets from three tales, all around 1913 before coming to St. Pete:

Johnny accidentally explores the depths of the Tennessee River.
Whoops, Johnny runs over his mechanic in the plane. It was actually the second time.
Johnny stops a runaway horse, because of course he did.

Eventually, Johnny Green’s cavalier and risk-prone personality would get him into hot water and would all but end his career, but we’ll get to that in our spicy conclusion to the tale. Before we get there, though, let’s talk about the decade or so he spent in St. Pete and environs, along with the many interesting things he did here.

Brought by the St. Pete Board of Trade

The two seasons of Jannus’ time in St. Pete proved a popular draw for the fledgling resort town. St. Pete’s Board of Trade, what we would now call the Chamber of Commerce, wanted to continue the shows, pleasure rides, and air boat service to Tampa that Jannus had introduced. The city made an agreement with Johnny Green and set up the necessary infrastructure, including a hangar on the “North Mole”, roughly where Spa Beach is now. His contract started on Jan 1, 1916 and he jumped in feet first performing many of the same services that Jannus did. Green, however, was a consummate showman and a daredevil to boot. In research I came across many recollections of Jannus talking about the elegance of flying, the feel of flight, the emotion that it conjured. Green never came across as being a romantic — He was into risk, speed, and glory. To that end, Green did a lot more stunt flying than Jannus, and performed many high-profile flights that started to show a commercial maturity of the popularity of flying. An example of this commercialism was initiated by another connsumate salesman, Walter Fuller, a land developer who had been trying desperately to sell a huge block of land called Davista that is located roughly where the Treasure Island causeway is now. Fuller hired Green to drop envelopes over Davista in a marketing effort to sell lots there.

Factoid: Betty was also his wife. I mean, his wife’s name. He named the plane after his wife. Whew.

The advertising stunt worked like magic. Over 3500 people were reported to have attended the event, most arriving by streetcar to the somewhat remote settlement of Davista to watch Green fly over and hopefully catch an envelope. The newspaper report indicated that it was one of the most successful advertising stunts in the history of the city, and also roundly clapped itself on the back noting how good the newspaper advertising was to get so many people to go watch Green do his thing.

As a result, three lots were sold on the spot in Davista, and all but a few of the envelopes were found within a day. This event was noteworthy because it really ushered in a new era of flamboyant advertising of the Sunshine City.

Dropping Bombs Was a Thing

Kids, get an adult’s permission before trying this yourself.

Back in Tennessee when Green performed he often dropped bombs out of the plane. I can’t possibly fathom the good sense in doing so, but it was something people loved to watch. In fact, often there would be a return fire from the ground and mock battles were staged to show off the potential military capabilities of the craft, and just like airshows today. People ate it up.

As noted, Green was a risk taker and came off as cocky; in one article in Chattanooga he recounted how he could “easily blow up the city” from the air should he choose to do so. Personal aside, probably not a good idea for a private pilot to suggest such things today, unless they’d like their last flight to be to Guantanamo or something.

Anyway. Gidge Gandy, wife of famous St. Petersburger George Gandy (who built the Gandy Bridge), devised such a scheme to advertise George’s La Paza Theater in downtown St. Pete about a month after the success of the Davista spectacle.

The plan was that she would fly along with Green and drop a large nitrogen bomb over the center of the city. And they did it! Right over downtown St. Pete! They also dropped a bunch of complimentary tickets to a show at the theater. The bombs, from what I can surmise, had a fuse that with some clever timing and a lofty altitude would explode loudly yet somewhat harmlessly in the air. Apparently not as well advertised as the Davista stunt, people were quite shocked at the loud bang that brought them racing outdoors to see what was going on around noon on the day in question.

Delivers Votes

One of Green’s other notable and headline-grabbing events happened in February of 1916. At the time, there was not yet telephone service to Pass-a-Grille, so the island relied on the ferry services to provide news back to the mainland. Green, accompanied by a St. Pete Times reporter flew to Pass-a-Grille on the day the mayor was to be elected and returned with the tabulation later that evening so that the results could be published in the paper the next day. That doesn’t sound like much, but at the time it was a big deal and represented a leap forward in connecting two places that were geographically close but still only connected by boat. Also interesting was the fact that Green encountered bad weather on the trip around Pinellas Point and had to climb to a high altitude of 2,500 feet to maintain safety lest the plane drop in the rough winds; this was a record altitude for the time. The trip back from Pass-a-Grille was also in bad weather but still completed in 14 minutes, likely a travel time record from the island town to St. Pete.

Promo photo used extensively in articles about Green.
Johnny with his airboat Betty and a passenger at the hangar in St. Pete.

Green’s Aerial Photos

Little aside… Johnny took the picture below at left in 1917 flying over the waterfront; to the right is from today at roughly the same spot and altitude. I thought you might be interested!

Little Snag for 1917 Season

Green had a good safety record for the 1916 season and didn’t crash once. I assume he was under strict instructions on safety from the Board of Trade, considering his rather spotty safety record in Tennessee. But somewhat mystifyingly, Green sort of disappeared while finalizing his St. Pete plans for the 1917 season in December of 1916. He had come down to St. Pete that month and had made a tentative agreement with the Board of Trade, but flew off saying he’d return shortly. He was gone for over a week with no word, so St. Pete hired a different pilot for 1917. Green turned up in Tampa and flew there for the season to the disappointment of many in St. Pete who had been enamored by his actions. However, beginning once again for the 1918 season and continuing for several years, Green found himself operating his airboat business in St. Pete.

Big Trouble Brewing

Let’s leap forward to 1924. Green had run his business each winter season successfully and was well-liked in the city until he hit some, um, turbulence.

In 1923 & ’24 there was a political shift in Cuba and protests erupted against corruption and government overreach. Remember, political relations didn’t sour with Cuba until decades later, but this political shift was monitored closely by the United States. Rumors spread of the intent of those leading the political shift in Cuba to set up operations here in case of violence resulting from what was to be called the “Awaking of National Conscience.” The Secret Service was out in force, and they were looking for any signs relating to the proposed revolution. The Pinellas Peninsula was one heavily watched area.

How does Green factor in? Well, unfortunately for Green, a private investigator monitoring train shipments to St. Pete saw a large shipment of cargo pulled off a train. A box from the load broke during unloading and a .45 caliber machine gun cartridge fell to the ground. After being tracked to a garage that Green owned in the city the shipment was seized by Federal agents. In total, they found six machine guns and 120,000 rounds of ammunition. They seized the weapons and ammo and locked it in the post office, a Federal building.

Making matters worse, it was known by the Feds that Cuban revolutionaries were looking to purchase and learn to fly planes in Florida. Three planes were purchased in Texas and delivered to Ocala during the time, and the purchaser of the planes was reported to be none other than Johnny Green. Coupling that with a mysterious three-week absence in January of 1924, Green sure looked like he was involved in the plot.

The nail in the coffin was a report that Green had made a handful of trips to Cuba between September 1923 and January 1924. His hangar was subsequently raided in May 1924, at which time a smaller amount of similar machine gun ammo was seized. They also took control of Green’s plane, a newer model named Sunshine. It was impounded with the rest of the items.

Finally, it was also found through forensic accounting of the suspect Green that he was receiving a $1,000 per month payment from the Cuban revolutionaries. The case against Green seemed airtight, and locally his reputation was suffering.

Out of a Tight Spot

Luckily for Green the “Revolution” in Cuba ended up being nonviolent, and the transfer of power didn’t damage US – Cuba relations. The serious charges that had mounted against Green were quickly dropped and his airboat was returned. Green resumed operations and from the looks of things his operation went back to normal for a couple more years. But over that time, another issue came up.

And… Then Trouble With the City

Johnny Green, who seems to have been too busy flying around doing stunts and whatnot to take on much more activity did in fact run another business in the city. St. Pete had leased to Green, on an annual basis, a dancing pavilion located on the waterfront at the base of the recreation pier beginning in 1921. Originally called “The Jitney” Green made updates and changes to the popular dancing spot and renamed it “The Green Lantern.” The spot remained popular, and while there were whispers that it may have also served as a speakeasy, that wasn’t ever proven.

The trouble started in 1925 when the city decided not to renew Green’s lease for the dance pavilion. The city wanted to change the property into a better facility and redevelop it. Green, however, felt slighted because he had made significant improvements to the leased pavilion, spending thousands over the few years it had been in operation. Green contested that his improvements should be considered in an renewal cancellation by the city. The battle was fought in court over some months, and finally the city had had enough. They decided to pull not just the lease on the pavilion, but also the lease had on his waterfront hangar. The city basically told Green to get lost.

Thanks for the lols. Now GTFO.
Johnny’s office and hangar on the Mole, until it wasn’t.

Johnny’s Story Comes to a Conclusion

After the affairs of the Cuban dust-up and then the pulling of his waterfront leases, Green tried to limp along and he relocated his flying business to the new Piper-Fuller Field located just west of where Tyrone Mall now sits. That was a long way from downtown St. Pete, and his operations suffered. Johnny seemed to finally have gotten into a situation that he he couldn’t pull out of, and his mojo seemed to have disappeared. Sadly he fell in and out of mental illness. Whether caused by stress, his fall from grace, or something else – or even all of that – isn’t quite clear. By 1931 he was in a mental institution back in Tennessee with little hope for recovery. He remained in the sanitarium for three years and died there in 1934. Green was a pilot of firsts, a daredevil, barnstormer, plane builder, attempted smuggler, businessman and more. His time in St. Pete was notable, and he certainly embodied every aspect of the Roaring Twenties in the city.

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