St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line: The First Ever Commercial Airline Service

The Wright Brothers made the first successful crewed heavier-than-air flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on 17 December, 1903. Ten years to the day, a contract was signed and on New Year’s Day in 1914 the world’s first scheduled commercial flight of a winged aircraft took place. Occurring between Florida’s St. Petersburg and Tampa, the trip was a landmark that paved the way for the airline industry known today.

Early Days

With a reputation for creating car starter motors, Thomas W. Benoist and his company also had success building rudimentary aircraft in the early 1910s. In 1912, pilot Tony Jannus and mechanic J.D. Smith set off in a Benoist plane on a 3,175-kilometre journey from Omaha to New Orleans. They were making an attempt to break the world record for the longest distance covered by a winged aircraft at that time.

This and other achievements soon got the attention of Percival Elliott Fansler, a salesperson for a fishing boat diesel engine manufacturer. With a fascination for speed, he wrote to Benoist and the two began corresponding on a regular basis.

Striking up a friendship with Benoist, Fansler looked at other ways his planes could be utilised and an idea for creating a service between two locations came to him. Being familiar with Florida, he concluded Tampa to St. Petersburg would be the best option.

A seaplane trip between the two cities would take 22 minutes, cutting travel time down significantly on a steamship’s two hours and a train’s 12 hours making the journey.

Benoist was intrigued by the proposal and, in late November 1913, Fansler headed to Tampa, where he found little interest for his airline business. He had more luck in St. Petersburg and worked out an agreement with the council and other investors. Benoist made a special trip to the city and the contract was signed by all on 17 December, 1913.

Three aircraft—two Model 14s and one Model 13—were transported via train from Benoist’s St. Louis factory and then reassembled once they arrived in St. Petersburg.

Maiden Flight

For the first flight, the Model 14’s passenger seat was auctioned off and was won by former local mayor Abraham C. Pheil, who’s top bid of $400 was donated and used to acquire harbour lights.

The lead up to the flight was covered in newspapers and over 3,000 people came out to see the event.

Once underway and piloted by Tony Jannus, the Model 14 experienced technical difficulties about halfway to Tampa and was forced to land on the water. With a hand from Pheil, the flying boat quickly got going again and the two men were met with cheers from about 2,000 spectators when they arrived in Tampa.

An Airboat Line and an Industry Begins

The St. Petersburg–Tampa airboat line was contracted for three months and offered two flights six days a week. 172 successful trips were made during the 50 days of operation and only seven days were lost due to bad weather or aircraft technical problems. The other Model 14 and 13 were used for sightseeing flights and for teaching at a newly formed piloting school.

Demand was high with some passengers having to wait up to 16 weeks for a flight. However, with winter over many people began heading back to the northern parts of the United States and interest quickly waned. The airline service’s contract expired on 31 March but the last flight was on 5 May, 1914.

Fansler and Benoist were proud of the business they had created but, between operational costs and employee wages, they barely made a profit. With World War I looming, both men decided not to continue.

The war led to a boom in aircraft designs and technology advanced considerably in that time. In the years that followed, an aviation industry established itself around the world and some of today’s commercial airlines—such as Delta, Qantas and an early incarnation of British Airways—got their start. Aircrafts and the industry have been evolving ever since.

Photo Credit: National Air and Space Museum


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