ST. PETERSBURG — Kermit Weeks has dedicated 2 1/2 years of his life to reproducing the airplane that became the world’s first commercial airliner, hoping he would follow the same flight path over Tampa Bay taken by Tony Jannus on New Year’s Day 1914.
The flight reenactment and the centennial celebration will go as scheduled Wednesday, but Weeks, unable to get his replica to take flight, will be in the cockpit idling in the water as he looks up at a last-minute replacement plane taking off for Tampa.
“We’ve been overcoming problem after problem for the past couple weeks, but ultimately we ran out of time and I had to pull the plug,” Weeks said Monday. “Trust me, it’s not because we didn’t try.”
Weeks powered up the engine and taxied his historically-accurate Benoist 2014 airboat on the water during a test on Saturday, but could not get it airborne despite making several adjustments. The team of eight people that worked on the plane nearly round the clock for three months is still working “like pioneers recreating the wheel,” with only a few old pictures and magazine articles to guide them, Weeks said.
“It’s taken lots of time and money, and everything looks like it should work, so there’s something we’re not seeing here. We just haven’t figured it out yet,” said Weeks, founder of the airplane attraction Fantasy of Flight in Polk City. “I’m disappointed, but more so we’re all perplexed.”
Plans for a back-up aircraft were made a few months ago, said Will Michaels, president of Flight 2014 Inc., the non-profit group planning the centennial celebrations. St. Petersburg native Ed Hoffman Jr. got the call Monday morning that he would fly his father’s airboat replica, the Hoffman X-4 “Mullet Skiff,” in the highly-anticipated reenactment.
“We would have liked to see Kermit’s reproduction fly, but he’s trying to recreate a 100-year-old plane, and he’s trying to build it from scratch, and it turns out that’s a very, very difficult thing to do,” said Michaels, co-chairman of the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society. “It’s a little disappointing the plane won’t be ready, but it’s kind of like when a Christmas present arrives late in the mail, the excitement is still there.”
The Hoffman X-4, built in 1980, is similar to Jannus’ original plane and has been used in the previous reenactments of the flight. Hoffman said he has carried everything from postmarked mail to former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco in the plane. The plane, his father’s design, has an open-air cockpit and can taxi on water like Jannus’ original biplane, but has a single wing instead of two. There’s just enough room for two people.
Hoffman is one of many who traveled to Fantasy of Flight to help Weeks plane or offered suggestions on Weeks’ Facebook page, which has chronicled the project since its inception. While Weeks will continue working on the hydrodynamics of his plane, Hoffman is hurrying to prepare for his unexpected flight, becoming reacquainted with the plane, giving it a coat of polish and anxiously checking weather reports.
“I imagine it’s kind of like being in a play when the main actor gets sick and you have to show up with their lines and act like you’ve done it all your life,” Hoffman said.
Michaels said Jannus’s historic, 20-minute flight at the age of 24 shouldn’t be overlooked, and perhaps had the biggest world-wide impact of any event to take place in the Tampa area.
“The whole concept of flight was still a novelty and something that many people found to be unbelievable. It would be like spaceships taking off from our waterfront,” said Michaels, the retired director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History. “At that time, a lot of people had never even seen an airplane, so it was a completely fantastic event. Technology can be scary, but it wasn’t too scary for this community. They embraced it and wanted to celebrate it.”
Though his plane won’t be airborne, Weeks will display the Benoist 2014 today at the St. Petersburg Museum of History as part of the First Night Celebration. He will speak about his two-year project at the museum at 8 p.m., following a 7 p.m. presentation by actor Michael Norton as Tony Jannus. The museum has a gallery devoted to Jannus’ airplane, and the first 500 children to arrive at the museum will get a replica of the plane, Michaels said.
On Wednesday, Weeks will taxi the Benoist 2014 in the Vinoy Yacht Basin, as the reenactment ceremony begins at 9 a.m. in both St. Petersburg and Tampa. The Mullet Skiff then will take off from there and land at the seaplane basin at Peter O. Knight Airport in Tampa. Large screens at both sites will show live video of the flight, which also will be broadcast on the Flight 2014 website at www.airlinecentennial.org.
Then, Weeks is off to conquer the new year and a new mission.
“My New Year’s resolution is that I’m going to fly that airplane in 2014,” he said. “We’ll figure it out.”