ST. PETERSBURG — A cold rain fell and wind kicked up in the Vinoy Yacht Basin as amateur pilot Ed Hoffman Jr. fired up his airboat Wednesday morning and sped into the sky to mark the 100th anniversary of the world’s first commercial airline flight.
Hoffman said he would not let the weather deter his plans and he proved true to his word as he circled the area near the Pier, waved to a cheering crowd of a few hundred umbrella-protected people below and pointed the plane toward Tampa as he recreated Tony Jannus’s historic 23-minute flight across Tampa Bay on Jan. 1, 1914.
“We’re going to go fly,” Hoffman had said more than an hour before the 10 a.m. New Year’s Day flight as he looked out on water that had not yet become too choppy. “We are on a schedule. It’s a ‘we’re ready when you are’ kind of thing. We are going to make it happen.”
After the short trip across the bay, the 62-year-old architect who has been flying since he was 16, landed safely in the water near Peter O. Knight Airport in Tampa.
Those who ventured out in the inclement weather to watch Hoffman also gathered around and listened as local dignitaries extolled Jannus, the aviation pioneer who exactly one century ago carried former St. Petersburg Mayor Abe Pheil, along with a bag of mail, on a flight that essentially launched the airline industry.
“The whole town gathered around the waterfront to watch him take off,” said Rick Baker, a more recent former St. Petersburg mayor. “The entire city knew history was being made.”
Will Michaels, president of the Flight 2014 Planning Board that worked to make the centennial celebration happen, said Jannus demonstrated the practicality of taking the still relatively new concept of flight and turning it into a business.
“It was well-publicized around the country,” Michaels said. “It was on the front page of the New York Times the next day.”
The flight re-creation also drew interest beyond the Tampa Bay area. The Tuesday edition of the Wall Street Journal included an article previewing the flight and President Barack Obama sent a letter, read at the pre-flight ceremony, recognizing the historic importance of Jannus and his flight.
Hoffman, who grew up in St. Petersburg, flew a two-seater Hoffman X-4 “Mullet Skiff” built by his father, Ed Hoffman Sr., who himself recreated Jannus’s flight in 1984.
Hoffman and his plane originally weren’t expected to be part of the day’s itinerary.
Kermit Weeks, chief executive officer of Fantasy of Flight in Polk County, has been working on his replica of Jannus’s airliner, the Benoist 2014, and planned to fly it for the centennial celebration.
Those plans were scrapped when issues uncovered during pre-flight testing prevented the plane from taking off. Weeks was still on hand Wednesday, powering up his plane for onlookers who were able to view the plane throughout the morning.
He also hasn’t given up his dream of recreating the Jannus flight.
“My New Year’s resolution for 2014 is to fly this across Tampa Bay,” Weeks said.
The morning’s festivities also included a hint of 1914, with a Tony Jannus impersonator and members of the Suncoast Model T Club dressed in period clothing. Club members also brought along several Model T automobiles that they put on display.
“I wanted to bring my 1916 (Model T) because it was closer to 1914, but it wasn’t running smoothly,” said Bill Saitta, secretary of the club.
He drove his 1923 Model T instead.
As Hoffman prepared to take his flight across the bay, he said it was important to remember the real reason so many people were there to watch.
“It’s not about Kermit Weeks, it’s not about me,” Hoffman said. “It’s about the event 100 years ago.”