On Jan. 1, we celebrated one of the more significant events in our area’s modern history. That date marks the 100th anniversary of the first commercial airline flight.
The flight took place over Tampa Bay and Hillsborough Bay in a two-seat seaplane piloted by Tony Jannus. The St. Petersburg to Tampa Air Boat Line lasted only three months, but it proved that regularly scheduled commercial airplane service was a viable enterprise.
The first flight departed at 10 a.m. on Jan. 1, 1914, lifting off from the waterfront in downtown St. Petersburg near today’s Jannus Landing. Just before the flight, Percival Fansler, a Jacksonville engineer and one of the main backers of the airline, made a brief speech, saying, “What was impossible yesterday is an accomplishment today, while tomorrow heralds the unbelievable.”
Jannus, 24, guided the seaplane over Tampa Bay, landed in Hillsborough Bay, and docked at the foot of Lee Street on the Hyde Park side of the Hillsborough River (near today’s Brorein Street Bridge, just south of The Tampa Tribune building).
The first passenger was former St. Petersburg mayor Abraham Pheil, who won the ticket in an auction. He paid $400 for the round-trip flight (more than $8,500 in today’s dollars). Regular flights cost $5, equivalent to more than $100 in today’s dollars, and the airline flew several flights daily, plus it offered exhibition flights on the weekends. Though extravagant, the ticket price was gladly paid by many people eager to test out the new mode of transportation.
A one-way flight usually took about 20 minutes, barring any mechanical troubles, and Jannus made two round-trip flights a day (except Sundays). Since it was a seaplane (dubbed an Air Boat at the time), if there was a problem, Jannus could land in the bay and make repairs as needed. Jannus actually crashed the plane into the bay on a few occasions, but neither he nor any of his passengers was ever seriously hurt.
The 20-minute flight time was an astounding achievement for the day. Until the Gandy Bridge opened 10 years later, the travel time between St. Pete and Tampa was two to three hours by boat. People also could take a 64-mile train trip around Old Tampa Bay or a bone-rattling automobile trip of roughly the same length but probably twice the duration. Though not very efficient, the airline demonstrated that there could be alternatives to the existing transportation options.
Though Tampa was the bigger city, the first flight originated from, and the airline was based in, St. Petersburg. The airline’s backers originally approached Tampa’s city leaders, but they did not see a future in aviation and were reluctant to offer any financial assistance or a large piece of land along the water for a dock and hanger. St. Pete’s leaders were more willing to work with the fledgling airline.
The two cities were very different, and then, as now, people in the two cities took shots at each other’s towns, with quips about the flight time to St. Petersburg being faster because people wanted to get out of Tampa as quickly as possible, and others wondering why anyone would pay $5 to go to St. Petersburg.
Tampa was the business center for all of central Florida at this time. St. Petersburg was earning a reputation as a winter home for retirees and the wealthy. There were political differences as well, not the least of which was the recent creation of Pinellas County out of the western portion of Hillsborough County. Though spurred on heavily by St. Pete leaders, the creation of the new county did not lead to instant prosperity for St. Petersburg. Indeed, Clearwater, not St. Pete, was designated as the county seat.
The service lasted for four months and proved that the concept of commercial aviation was viable. Over the course of the airline’s service, the plane made 172 regular trips between St. Pete and Tampa, plus an additional 100 special trips, and hundreds of other flight exhibitions and excursions, carrying more than 1,200 passengers plus a good deal of freight.
Though strange in modern times, the idea of air travel, particularly passenger air service, being conducted on seaplanes was seen as the future of aviation in the 1910s and 1920s. Tampa and Hillsborough County even studied the feasibility of dredging an island in Hillsborough Bay just northeast of Ballast Point to serve as the home for the area’s main airport in the early 1920s.
Though local leaders opted instead to lease John Drew’s field, now the site of Tampa International Airport, the idea of an island airport to serve seaplanes did not go away. Ten years later, plans were announced for the construction of Peter O. Knight Airport on Davis Islands, complete with a seaplane basin.
Aviation would continue to play a significant role in the Tampa Bay area’s economy, particularly Tampa International Airport, which is regularly regarded as one of the top airports in the country, and MacDill Air Force Base, home to several military commands. Those sleek jets and massive transports can trace their lineage to that tiny Benoist plane and its pilot, Tony Jannus.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached by email at [email protected] or phone at (813) 228-0097.