Home » America’s First Airline Took Flight 110 Years Ago And Turned A Horribly Slow Trip Into Something Exciting

America’s First Airline Took Flight 110 Years Ago And Turned A Horribly Slow Trip Into Something Exciting

First Airport Ts
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Traveling around America over 100 years ago was a far different experience than everyone is used to today. Sure, there were cars and trains, but roads weren’t as expansive and trains were slow. It took forever just to travel short distances. In 1914, the St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line made history by being the first airline with scheduled service in America and the first airline to operate a fixed-wing aircraft. Its route was just 18 miles, a short drive by car today, but back then, it cut what was as long as an 11-hour journey down to just 23 minutes by air.

It’s easy to take commercial aviation for granted nowadays. If you need to get from Chicago to Los Angeles before today ends, you just whip out your phone, choose an airline and a departure time, and then board a metal tube. That airliner may be cramped, but it whisks you to your next destination in mere hours at hundreds of miles per hour. The airplane has made the world feel a bit smaller and any locale feel a bit closer.

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Vidframe Min Bottom

The same goes for car travel. If you want to drive from New York City to Los Angeles, all you have to do is hop in your air-conditioned car and point the hood in your desired direction. There will be several highways to get you there. To give you an idea of what a cross-country drive looked like over a century ago, Horatio Nelson Jackson became the first person to drive across America in 1903 on a $50 bet. It took him 63 days, his Winton drank 600 gallons of fuel, and he spent $8,000 to complete the journey. For those of you history nerds out there, that’s a road trip worth $283,938 in today’s money.

Horatiojacksonnelson
PBS/Public Domain

Trains still reigned supreme for “fast” travel and were capable of getting a person across America in a handful of days.

In the Florida of today, getting from St. Petersburg to Tampa is as easy as driving down the area’s famed bridge system. You can get the job done before a cup of joe gets cold. In 1914? There were a few ways to get to Tampa from St. Petersburg. Space.com notes that the quickest route was boarding a ship, which took two hours to connect the two cities. If you didn’t like water, you could hop on a train and take a long route wrapping its way around the bay into Clearwater, Bridgeport, and more before finally reaching Tampa. If you had a car, that was a 20-hour trip (sometimes reported as 6 hours). Mind you, I’m talking about getting between points less than 20 miles apart, here.

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A salesman thought all of these forms of travel took far too long and proposed a solution: Use a flying boat! This idea would result in America’s first-ever airline.

The Origins

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State Library Of Florida

The story of the St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line, also known as the SPT Airboat Line, was the idea of Percival Elliot Fansler. Fansler was not an aviator or a constructor but a Florida-based salesman for the Kahlenberg Brothers, a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of diesel engines for fishing boats.

As HistoryNet writes, when Fansler wasn’t selling engines, he had a need for speed. Back then, Fansler got his dose of speedy exhilaration from racing boats, but then he heard of the work of aviation pioneer Thomas W. Benoist (pronounced “Ben-Wah”) and daring Benoist test pilot Antony H. Jannus.

It’s worth noting that this event was taking place just barely over a decade after the Wright Brothers made their historic powered flight. Thomas W. Benoist followed in the footsteps of early innovators. As the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics writes, in the early 1900s Benoist made his mark on American industry with an improved battery for automotive use, and just a year after the Wright Brothers’ flight, he sponsored balloonist John Berry’s unsuccessful lighter-than-air flying machine. A few years later, Benoist was one of the founders of Aeronautic Supply Company, reportedly the first aircraft supply company in America. At first, that company supplied the raw materials to build aircraft, then it shifted to selling kits to allow aviators to build their own aircraft.

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Benoist’s first flight – eBay

In 1910, Benoist learned how to fly a Curtiss-type biplane, and in 1911, he opened his own flight school to teach others how to take to the skies. That year, Benoist bought out his partner in the Aeronautic Supply Company and moved the company to suburban St. Louis, renaming it the Benoist Aircraft Company along the way. By this time, Benoist’s business concerns were popular enough to have national attention, including students coming from all over the country to learn at the Benoist School of Aviation.

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Once the stakes of the Benoist Aircraft Company were planted in St. Louis and Benoist had full control, he decided to shift the company away from selling parts for building other companies’ aircraft. Instead, Benoist would design and sell his own aircraft. Benoist’s first plane was a redesign of the Curtiss biplane he flew in 1910. Benoist then manufactured his interpretation of the aircraft and used them for his flight school and for exhibition.

According to HistoryNet, in 1911 Benoist also met Antony H. Jannus, an engineer-turned aviator. Jannus sounded like a bit of a daredevil as he got little instruction before he found himself flying cross-country flights at 300 feet. Now, 300 feet is nothing today, but remember, this was when planes were in their infancy. Jannus also did some work testing air-to-ground radios before Benoist hired him as a flight instructor.

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State Library Of Florida

Benoist’s factory would burn down later that year, taking five aircraft, equipment, tools, and all of the company’s files. Benoist wouldn’t let that event stop him, as he moved his business to a new location and got to work rebuilding it. In 1912, Benoist took his next big step by designing his first original aircraft, the Type XII, named after the year it was built. The aircraft was designed with help from Jannus, who would become Benoist’s bombastic test pilot.

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics notes that this plane was designed with novel features. Since Benoist ran a flight school, the aircraft was designed to survive the rough landings of student pilots. To facilitate this, Benoist and Jannus designed a landing gear that cushioned the blow of a hard landing while also transmitting force to the strong engine supports rather than the wings. The wheels achieved this through the use of steel springs.

Benoist Type Xii #32, Nasm
One-half left front view of the Benoist-Korn Type XII as it hangs in the Pre-1920 Aviation exhibition station at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, VA. – NASM

Other developments with the Type XII include a rear skid to prevent tail damage and wings designed to be taken apart and put back together quickly so the aircraft could be used for shows. The wing design also reduced the effort required to maneuver the aircraft during exhibitions. Also a bit weird was the aircraft’s 75 HP Roberts six-cylinder two-stroke engine, which found more use as a marine engine back then.

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One-half left front view of the Benoist-Korn Type XII as it hangs in the Pre-1920 Aviation exhibition station at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, VA. – NASM

The Benoist Type XII then went on to make headlines. In one 1912 flight, Jannus piloted a Type XII while Albert Berry, the son of John Berry, made the first-ever parachute drop from a plane. Later that year Jannus and mechanic J.D. Smith flew an early Benoist flying boat 1,973 miles over the course of six weeks. Reportedly, it took that long in part because of exhibitions, repairs, a fire, and even sickness. Still, the feat amplified Jannus’ fame. He then set a record, flying an aircraft with a passenger from Paducah, Kentucky, to St. Louis, a continuous flight that took four hours and 15 minutes. Eventually, Jannus became so invested in his work with Benoist that he became a principal stockholder in the Benoist Aircraft Company.

All of this caught the attention of Fansler, who not only had that thirst for more adventure but had an open mind to new business ideas. After hearing about Jannus’ trip in a flying boat, Fansler opened up talks with Benoist. As HistoryNet writes, after some conversation and exchange of aircraft specifications from Benoist, Fansler thought of an idea. What if he could use the Benoist flying boat to fly people from one place to another place?

Pilot Tony Jannus And Captain Al
Pilot Tony Jannus and Captain Albert Berry with the Benoist-built bi-plane they used when Berry became the first person to parachute from an airplane on 1 March 1912. – Missouri History Museum

Fansler quickly identified an opportunity to fly people between Tampa and St. Petersburg. Benoist was on board and was willing to provide three flying boats. However, Fansler was in charge of setting up the operation, the route, and getting financial backing for the whole thing.

Reportedly, Fansler descended into Tampa in late 1913 and found no one was interested in funding an airline between the cities. So, he tried St. Petersburg – then with a population of just 9,000 people – where the reaction was far more positive. There, Fansler got the backing of St. Petersburg Board of Trade manager L.A. Whitney and businessman Noel Mitchell. Whitney threw $1,200 into the ring, Mitchell tossed in $1,000, and Fansler convinced another 11 investors to pitch in $100 each.

On December 17, 1913, Benoist signed what was reportedly the world’s first contract for a fixed-wing aircraft airline service. The deal called for St. Petersburg to front $2,400 to the airline, but Benoist had his own obligations. He had to provide the aircraft, the pilots, and maintain two scheduled flights between St. Petersburg and Tampa. Those flights had to run six days a week for three months, the length of the contract.

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The contract was due to start on January 1, 1914, marking the launch of America’s first airline. As the Tampa Bay Times writes, the airline’s investors would each pay Benoist $50 each day the airline completed flights on time during the three-month contract.

The Airline

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Jannus and Pheil in the Benoist Model 14 – State Library Of Florida

With support from St. Petersburg and money lined up, it was time to take to the skies. Jannus was chosen as the pilot for the airline and two Benoist XIV flying boats were shipped to St. Petersburg.

The two planes were simple compared to the airliners of today. The Benoist XIV was a biplane flying boat with a length of 26 feet, wingspans of 44 feet, and pontoons at the ends of the lower wings. An empty Benoist XIV weighed 1,250 pounds and was a two-place aircraft, featuring seating for just the pilot and a single passenger. The hull was made out of three layers of spruce with fabric between each layer while the spruce wings had linen wrapped around them. Reportedly, a Benoist XIV was worth around $4,250 ($132,741 today).

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State Library Of Florida

Power came from a 7.8-liter Roberts Motor Company 1913 Model 6-X two-stroke water-cooled inline-six engine making 75 HP. It spun a propeller in a rear pusher configuration. The aircraft had a cruising speed of 64 mph and a range of 125 miles, perfect for the first airline.

The first Benoist Type XIV, Benoist build number 43, started its life by flying people around Duluth, Minnesota, and earning the nickname the Lark of Duluth along the way. This aircraft was purchased by the St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line as was the only other Benoist Type XIV built. Reportedly, there were some snags in getting the aircraft ready. As Simple Flying writes, there were construction issues with the airline’s hangars delaying the airline.

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Benoist Type Xiv First Airline T
State Library Of Florida

As the Tampa Bay Times wrote, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad train delivering the disassembled aircraft also got lost. Thus, the first flying boat arrived on the day of the airline’s launch. Jannus worked on assembling the aircraft by attaching its skids and wings while locals were hired to prepare a boat ramp.

The St. Petersburg Daily Times gave the occasion a ton of publicity and around 2,000 to 3,000 people showed up to watch the launch of America’s first airline. The first passenger would be former St. Petersburg mayor Abe Pheil, who paid $400 for the privilege of being the airline’s very first passenger. Reportedly, Fansler delivered a short speech before takeoff, from the International Air Transport Association:

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Identified in the photograph are Percy E. Fansler, general manager of Tampa Air Boat Line at the left; Mayor A.C. Phiel and Tony Jannus, pilot. State Library Of Florida

“The Airboat Line to Tampa will be only a forerunner of great activity along these lines in the near future…what was impossible yesterday is an accomplishment of today-while tomorrow heralds the unbelievable.”

After several speeches, photographs, and interactions with the crowd, Jannus took off into the history books. The flying boat never achieved an altitude higher than 50 feet, but he became the first pilot of the first-ever fixed-wing airline. The flight was eventful, too, as the engine sputtered and threw its chain, requiring a brief landing before it finished the whole trip in 23 minutes. Jannus landed the flying boat in the Hillsborough River in Tampa, where another crowd of around 3,500 people cheered on the flight. Reportedly, the flying boat drank 13 gallons of fuel and a gallon of oil on each flight.

In Tampa, Pheil conducted some business before hopping back into the flying boat for a return trip. After a total trip of an hour and a half, Pheil and Jannus were back in St. Petersburg in an hour and a half, much faster than the time it would have taken a steamship to travel just one direction of the route. On the very next day of operations, Mrs. L.A. Whitney became the first woman to fly on a fixed-wing-based airline.

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Smithsonian Institution

From there, the airline would begin fulfilling its end of the contract by flying two scheduled flights a day. Passengers paid $5 ($158 today) for a ticket and were limited to 200 pounds total, including any baggage they held on their person. Reportedly, passengers who brought more weight were charged $5 per extra hundred pounds with a 25-cent minimum. The St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line also offered charter flights and flights to other Florida destinations for two to four times the cost of a regular ticket. Reportedly, the airline made about 100 of such trips on top of its regular schedule. Local businesses, including florists and the St. Petersburg Times, used the airline to deliver their goods between the two cities. The airline charged $5 per 100 pounds of freight.

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The airline upheld its end of the deal, flying 172 trips and 1,205 passengers over the three-month period, sometimes, the airline even flew two passengers at a time if they were small enough. The St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line was reliable too, being taken out of service for only a few days during the contract thanks to either weather or maintenance.

The Impact Of The St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line

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Smithsonian Institution

The SPT Airboat Line ran twice daily flights from January 1, 1914 to March 31, 1914, the end of the contract. The airline managed to survive only five weeks after the contract. Unfortunately, the St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line didn’t make money and tourism cratered in the area as temporary residents moved back to their warming northern states. That said, those who could afford to fly on the airline reported an experience unlike anything else.

Reportedly, Jannus and his brother Roger, one of the other SPT Airboat Line pilots, had so much time on their hands they would race each other with the Benoist flying boats. The last flight of the airline was on May 5 of that year.

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State Library Of Florida

After the St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line failed, Benoist XIV Lark of Duluth was sold to Byrd M. Latham, where it began performing sightseeing flights in Pennsylvania. It would later be destroyed in a crash in 1914. The other Benoist XIV, construction number 45, made it over to San Diego in December 1914. It would crash a couple of months later. There was a third aircraft in the fleet, Benoist number 44, and it also crashed. Sadly, this means that there are no surviving aircraft from the St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line. According to Forbes, in the early 1980s, a few dozen members of the Florida Aviation Historical Society built a replica of the Lark of Duluth.

Also sad is what happened to the men involved in the airline. Tony Jannus moved on to becoming a test pilot for Glenn Curtiss. In World War I during 1916, Jannus was training Russian soldiers and demonstrating the Curtiss Model H flying boat when it crashed into the Black Sea, killing Jannus and two passengers.

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Benoist struggled to keep his enterprises afloat in World War I. In 1917, he stepped off of a streetcar in Ohio and struck his head into a telephone pole, ending his life. Finally, Roger Jannus found himself enlisted in the Aviation Branch of the United States Signal Corps. He also passed in World War I when his de Havilland-4 suffered from an in-flight fire over France.

Benoist Xiv (model)
NASM

While the airline and its people came to a tragic end, the effort is remembered for proving that a fixed-wing airline could work. Today, Benoist and Jannus are remembered in permanent exhibits in the St. Petersburg Museum of History, the St. Petersburg–Clearwater International Airport, and the Wright Brothers National Memorial. St. Petersburg and Tampa also established the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society, which has given coveted awards to civil aviators throughout history.

The IATA notes that while Jannus and Benoist get a ton of recognition, it was Percival Elliot Fansler who came up with the idea of the first airline in the first place. While Fansler’s face may not be plastered in multiple museums, he’s the one who kickstarted a new way to travel. The next time you board a terrible Spirit flight, now you know that over 110 years ago, a group of aviation nuts were a part of why you’re on that plane today.

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Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
2 months ago

That’s a heckuva story!

Rapgomi
Rapgomi
2 months ago

PBS has a Ken Burns documentary on Horatio’s Drive. What a time and place to be alive.

As a kid I was obsessed with the 1908 New York to Paris Race. I eventually convinced my parents to take me to see the great Thomas Flyer – then take a picture of me sneaking under the rope and touching its tire!

Bleeder
Bleeder
2 months ago

I really enjoy these articles, Mercedes!

One suggestion for The Autopian writers / editors:

It took him 63 days, his Winton drank 600 gallons of fuel, and he spent $8,000 to complete the journey. For those of you history nerds out there, that’s a road trip worth $283,938 in today’s money.

Including the inflation-adjusted USD down to the dollar is probably unnecessary (also when converting to USD from other currencies based on exchange rates).

It doesn’t really add more useful information and quickly becomes incorrect as inflation rates and exchange rates vary over time. I also find it a bit distracting and it takes me away from the article somewhat while I am reading.

“600 gallons of fuel… [and] $8,000 to complete the journey…” is sufficient for the historic context, so “… nearly $284,000” is probably fine for the conversion.

Cheers! I’m off to add another 236.588 ml coffee to my cup!

Lew Schiller
Lew Schiller
2 months ago

Wow! What a great article. Thanks Mercedes!
By the end of it I had completely forgotten my initial juvenile chuckle at “Ben Wah”

Last edited 2 months ago by Lew Schiller
Ncbrit
Ncbrit
2 months ago

Kermit Weeks attempted to make the same flight with the Benoist replica on the 100 year anniversary. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLc9R0Ar11YH3_BG-D-ZyN6ukuX8cV2Wk8

Sean O'Brien
Sean O'Brien
2 months ago

Would it be be more accurate to say that this was the first ‘heavier than air’ airline (to distinguish it from airship-based predecessors such as DELAG), rather than the first ‘fixed wing’ airline? (I’m assuming that there isn’t a helicopter line that I’m unaware of.)

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
2 months ago

Wow, this is so fascinating…I had no idea Airboats went back this far. I used to live a couple hours drive south of Tampa for a couple of years and didn’t know all of this history and never thought to look up when the 1st airline was. Great article!

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
2 months ago

I will never NOT be astounded by commercial air travel. Last month I flew round trip LAS-STL-LAS. For $52. Round trip. Three hours/1500 miles each way. If you’re not amazed by that, we can’t be friends.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
2 months ago

Believing in old marketing materials is not a good idea. Air travbeat road travel when distance was cut or roads were poor but for the most part it was a money thing.

The Matts
The Matts
2 months ago

Fun fact: for a while, Cigar City Brewing had a beer called Tony Jannus Pale Ale. It was brewed at their outpost taphouse at Tampa International Airport. At the time, it was the only beer brewed at an airport in the US. You still see it occasionally, but it’s not brewed regularly anymore.

Carlos Ferreira
Carlos Ferreira
2 months ago

I understand roads were terrible in 1914 or practically nonexistent, but I still can’t understand how 18 miles could take 11 hours by car. Is that a mistake?At an average 3 mph walking pace the trip would take 6 hours.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
2 months ago

No it requires travel around a lake with poor roads but even then the air travel time was just airport to airport not departure to arrival destination. Poor investigation on the story here.

Stig's Cousin
Stig's Cousin
2 months ago

I live in the Tampa Bay area so I’ll take a shot at answering this one.

Driving between downtown Tampa and downtown St. Petersburg is around 24 miles using the bridges available today. I presume the shortest distance between both downtown areas is around 18 miles, so 18 miles would be the flight distance.

Tampa Bay is huge. If you avoided all bridges and used today’s roads, the route would be closer to 50 miles (possibly more; St. Petersburg to the northernmost point of the bay is ~30 miles alone).

This route would take you through areas that would have been mostly uninhabited in 1914. Some of these areas were swampy and other areas would have been heavily forested, so the roads that exist probably weren’t very direct or easy to drive on.

Eleven hours still seems a bit long to me, but I have heard that before. Whether that is completely accurate or not, it still would not have been an easy trip.

Chartreuse Bison
Chartreuse Bison
2 months ago

Yeah the article really should have mentioned outright it’s only 18 miles by water

Paul E
Paul E
2 months ago

Benoist’s pilot Jannus certainly had balls at the beginnings of flight.

Lizardman in a human suit
Lizardman in a human suit
2 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

That is why the passenger payload limit was so low. Big brass ones weigh alot.

Bleeder
Bleeder
2 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

Are we not doing “phrasing!” anymore?

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