Much has been done this past month to honor the memory of John F. Kennedy’s visit to the Tampa Bay area 50 years ago. One of the lesser-publicized events of that trip was the message JFK delivered at Al Lopez Field in Tampa.
Under the banner “St. Petersburg-Tampa 50th Anniversary Scheduled Air Service,” he delivered a major speech that discussed the origin of the first airline in the Tampa Bay area and its famed pilot, Tony Jannus, and noted the importance of aviation for the nation and the world: “Because of Tony Jannus, because of others like him, this country is No. 1 in aviation … and I hope in the 1960s that the United States of America will take the leadership again in space, in the air, and around the world so that the United States will still be [No.] 1 a hundred years after Tony Jannus’ first flight.”
The world’s first airline began in the Tampa Bay area on Jan. 1, 1914, when Tony Jannus flew the Benoist Airboat from St. Petersburg to Tampa. In the short span of four months the airline flew more than 1,000 people. Based on this first demonstration of the efficacy of regularly scheduled air service, today’s global aviation industry serves more than 2 billion passengers worldwide. The economic impact in the greater Tampa Bay area alone is estimated at $9 billion.
It is now nearly 100 years after Jannus’ first flight, and several Tampa Bay area organizations have joined together as “Flight 2014” to plan commemoration of the centennial with St. Petersburg and Tampa. Events include student projects, talks at area museums, and exhibits and displays at the St. Petersburg Museum of History, Tampa International Airport, and Tampa’s Riverwalk.
This year’s St. Petersburg New Year’s Eve “First Night” Celebration will be dedicated to the First Airline under the theme “First Night, First Flight.” On New Year’s Day, Kermit Weeks of nearby Fantasy of Flight will reenact the original flight across the bay in a new reproduction of the first airliner, from St. Petersburg’s downtown yacht basin to the Peter O. Knight Seaplane Basin. (Details may be accessed at www.airline centennial.org.)
One hundred years after that first airline flight in the Tampa Bay area, we now have private air services delivering cargo to the International Space Station, the emergence of spaceports, and we are on the cusp of commercial suborbital and orbital travel. JFK and Tony Jannus would be proud.
This is a centennial celebration in which the entire Tampa Bay community can unite!
The writer is the chairman of the Flight 2014 planning board.