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Thu, Aug 07, 2008

Weekend Event Will Celebrate The Centennial Of Commercial Flight

First Recorded Commercial Trip Occurred In St. Petersburg, FL

by ANN Correspondent Aleta Vinas

The thought of hopping on an airline these days makes many people cringe. Paying for drinks, paying for your luggage, what's next? The airlines seem to be nickel and diming passengers to death in an effort to stay afloat. But what of the first commercial airline flight in the US?

The date was January 1, 1914... and tied up at the North Mole of the Central Yacht Basin at St. Petersburg, FL , was a Benoist model 14 seaplane with pilot Tony Jannus at the ready.

Bidding to be the first passenger on the flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa had started a little before 9:00 am. The winner was former St. Petersburg Mayor Abraham C. Pheil, who paid $400 for his ticket. On his the 19 mile, 23 minute flight Pheil experienced the salt spray... and a short delay in the middle of the bay for some repairs. At least he didn't have the TSA to deal with.

After this inaugural flight of the St. Petersburg to Tampa Airboat Line, Jannus flew several more times that day. The alternative to this short 23 minute flight was a 12 hour train ride, two hour steamship ride or six hours in an automobile (if it didn't break down).

The normal flight schedule was to be two flights per day at $5 one way or $10 round-trip. Charter flights could be arranged for $15. The airline lasted about four months and carried over 1000 passengers. With the end of the tourist season, the airline closed

There is some question whether the St. Petersburg to Tampa flight actually constitutes the first commercial airline flight. The first commercial airline rights are claimed by DELAG, which carried passengers starting in 1909 in airships. There is also a claim of hydroplane flights between San Francisco and Oakland, California in 1913. However, records cannot be shown for these flights.

The Centennial is still years away but the St. Petersburg Museum of History is celebrating this Sunday, August 10. Why the early start? Dr, George Banez, Executive Director of the Museum says "we decided since we don't have a lot of resources, we can start early to drum up interest and maybe gain momentum along the way."

The Museum, founded by Mary Wheeler Eaton in 1920 is a 501C3 non-profit organization and is "supported by the community" Banez points out. It relies on the generosity of groups such as, the Pinellas County Cultural Affairs Department, the Petersburg Clearwater Convention and Visitors Bureau, the St. Petersburg Times and the Pinellas County Cultural Council to hold special events.

The celebrating actually began last year, with an aerospace art exhibit. In August 2007, there was a Family Aviation Weekend. The weekend included a one man reenactment of Lindbergh's solo flight. Banez hopes one year to have a reenactment of Jannus flight. "We need someone to write the script and perform it," Banez sighs.

The activities for this Sunday are scheduled to begin at 10:00 am. The event is FREE to Florida residents with an ID. Several speakers will be on hand. NASA engineer Louise Kleba will speak about women in aviation and Dr. Warren Brown will give a presentation on the Red Baron, along with several other speakers. The talks will encourage interaction.

"We want the kids to move around, see the exhibits, we want them to ask questions and have fun," explains Banez.

Radio station WSJT will be broadcasting their smooth jazz live from 10:00 am until 2:00 pm. Representatives from the Tampa Bay Rays will be on hand, setting up a batting cage and interactive video games. "The whole idea of this is to get families – kids and their parents learning together," hopes Banez.

The highlight of the day will be the awarding of cash and prizes for the winners of the Diversity in Aviation Art exhibit that has been on display at the Museum. Middle School, High School and adult nonprofessional artists were challenged to submit paintings pertaining to any aspect of aviation. Banez says "As a follow up to last year's events, we combined the two events, the art show and the classes."

Many of the events will take place in the Museum's First Flight Gallery which opened in 1991 to commemorate the Benoist airline flight. The centerpiece of the gallery is a replica of the Benoist flying boat. The replica built by the Florida Aviation Historical Society re-created Jannus's flight at the 70th anniversary of the trip.

The replica won't be flying again in 2014 but according to Banez "we have BIG plans for the actual year. We hope this will be something national and even international." Banez offered a small tidbit of what was to come – a 1/3 scale R/C model of the Benoist would recreate the trip across the Bay.

Join the celebration, it's free for Florida residents... and the TSA is no where in sight.

FMI: www.spmoh.org, www.floridaahs.org/

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