On January 1, 1914, while much of Europe was embroiled in a war, a small Benoist (pronounced Ben-wah or Ben-weest) Model 14 seaplane took off from St. Petersburg, Florida and traveled 20 miles across Tampa Bay to land in Tampa, Florida.
The pilot on this first commercial airline voyage was Anthony Jannus. His paying passenger was the mayor of St Petersburg, Abraham C. Pheil who bought the first airline ticket at an auction for $400. (The airline donated the money to the city for the purchase of harbor lights.)
That first flight included a stop in Tampa Bay to repair a drive chain which would be a recurring problem with the Benoist. It’s ironic that the first commercial flight also had the world’s first airline delay.
Antony H. Jannus was a Benoist test pilot and instructor who was an aviation pioneer long before the St. Petersberg-to-Tampa flight.
He had taken Captain Albert Berry to make the first parachute jump from an airplane on March 1, 1912. Jannus did flying demonstrations for Benoist planes throughout the Midwest and was a contestant at a Chicago air show in September 1912.
Later that month, he established an American passenger-carrying record by taking three men with him on a 10-minute flight.
On November 6, 1912, Jannus and J.D. Smith, who was his mechanic, left Omaha for New Orleans in an attempt to set a distance record for winged aircraft.
The flight of 1,973 miles took six weeks because of stops for exhibitions, a near-disastrous fire, various repairs and an appendicitis attack. But Jannus was still hailed in the newspapers as “the pioneer flying-boat pilot of the world.”
Soon after the New Orleans flight, he set a “continuous flight with passenger” record by flying 251 miles from Paducah, Kentucky, to St. Louis MO in four hours and 15 minutes. Jannus also made air-to-ground radio tests for the Signal Corps during that flight.
Tony Jannus was a native of Washington D.C. Born in 1889. He was employed by the Emerson Marine Engine Co. in Alexandria, Virginia. By chance in November of 1910, Emerson Marine sent Tony to install a marine engine in a modified Curtiss-type airplane in College Park, Maryland.
It was at this time Tony fell in love with flying. He had received only basic instructions (which was standard procedure in those early days) and soon became very active in aviation. Benoist hired him as a flying instructor in St. Louis in 1911.
Tony came to St. Petersburg with the airboat and once the plane was reassembled from the rail trip, he flew test flights in preparation for the newly formed passenger service.
Tony Jannus was the pilot of that first scheduled passenger airline flight on January 1, 1914, for a very simple reason – he knew the plane and also how to fly it!
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