The Non-Fiction Reader Magazine


Editor's Page
Tony Jannus In the Benoist Airboat
(Florida Archive)


Tony Jannus and the World's First Commercial Airline


By Richard L. Servis Jr.



     Anthony Habersack Jannus was born in Washington, DC, on June 22, 1889.  His father, Frankland Jannus, was a former British patent clerk, and his mother was the former Emeline Weightman, of an old established Virginia family.  Tony and his brother, Roger, were orphaned in 1902, then went to live with their aunt and uncle.  As a teenager, Tony became fascinated with the idea of flying.  Finally, while working for the Emerson Engine Company of Alexandria, Virginia in 1910, he taught himself to fly at College Park, Maryland.  (In those days most pilots were self-taught).  Soon afterward, Tony Jannus conducted pleasure rides from Washington's Potomac Park.  Once, in May of 1911, while trying to avoid hitting bystanders during a landing, Jannus crashed into an embankment.  During his recuperation period, he wrote a how-to article on flying, which was published in the Scientific American.  By November of the same year, Jannus had moved to St. Louis, Missouri which had become a hub for flying activities.  He signed on with Thomas Benoist (Pronounced Ben-Wah), who had already been building flying machines for some time.  Benoist hired Tony Jannus as chief pilot.


     Benoist felt that aircraft should be introduced to the American public  as "a viable method of transportation for common people."  One of the advertising plans was the successful first parachute jump from an airplane.  Jannus was the pilot, and the parachutist was Albert Berry. 


     Benoist's next advertising venture was a 1,973 miles tour of cities along the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans. The pilots staged 40 or 50 exhibitions, using three planes, Jannus being the main pilot.  The tour lasted 40 days, and an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 people saw first-hand what the airplane could do. 


     Hugh Robinson, an employee of Benoist is credited with the idea and construction of the first "Flying Boat" as it was called, and the first buyer was a sportsman named W.D. "Bill" Jones of Duluth.  Unfortunately, Robinson crashed the plane during delivery, and it had to be rebuilt.  The wingspan was lengthened, perhaps as a result of what may have caused the crash.  The plane was named, "Lark of Duluth."  Later, the same plane would be the "Model "B" Benoist #43" used for the maiden run of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line.


     Benoist began manufacturing the flying boats, which were later called "airboats".  News of the airboats and their pilots reached Percival Elliot Fansler of Jacksonville, Florida.  Fansler was a Florida district sales representative for a marine diesel engine manufacturer.  He was so impressed with what he had heard of the airboat exhibitions, he wrote Thomas Benoist

stating,  "...Instead of monkeying with the thing to give 'jazz' trips, I would start a real commercial line running from somewhere to somewhere else."  Benoist was easily convinced of the feasibility, and agreed to participate.  Fansler first approached the officials of Jacksonville, and finding no interest there, chose the Tampa Bay area.  After a prompt rejection by the Tampa Board of Trade, soon found support from the officials of St. Petersburg, and financing from local businessmen.  The contract for the experimental St. Petersburg- Tampa Airboat Line was for three months, beginning January 1, 1914.  Benoist would supply the plane, and Tony Jannus would be the chief pilot.  A boat slip and hanger was quickly built, and news of the first trip was front page news in the St. Petersburg Daily Times-- themselves being the first to exploit the

innovative endeavor of Fansler and Benoist with a small headline: "The Times Will Deliver Papers In Tampa Bay By Speedy Benoist Airboat."  The text read in part, "The St. Petersburg Daily Times will be the first newspaper in the world to use flying machines for delivery purposes, and this service will start this morning...."


     Before the memorable event took place, The privilege of being the first passenger on the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line was auctioned off to the highest bidder.  The auctioneer was F.C. Bannister.  The bidding quickly reached $100, and several bidders remained.  Finally, former Mayor Abram C. (Abe) Pheil won the privilege with a bid of $400.  Very likely, he would have bid much higher if necessary.


     The ex-mayor Abe Pheil donned a raincoat for the trip, and the flight began promptly at 10:00 a.m. as scheduled.  Gently, the airboat slid down the boat slip and into the yacht basin.  After circling its way around the basin it passed into the breakwaters for actual take-off.  The craft lifted its way upward reaching an altitude of 12 to 15 feet, and with speeds up to 65 mph arrived in Tampa in twenty-three minutes.  As the heroic pair climbed out of the cockpit, Tampa's Mayor McKay was there to greet them.  Mayor McKay congratulated them both, an commended St. Petersburg for its enterprising venture.


     The return trip left promptly at 11:00 a.m., and arrived at 11:20 a.m.-- Twenty-one miles in 20 minutes!  It set a record of flight for this kind of flying, and set the course for commercial air travel.  Moreover, it was a far better means of getting from St.Petersburg to Tampa than the half-day travel by steamer, or circling around the bay by automobile.  There were no bay bridges

at that time.  Now, "airline" passengers could travel to Tampa in the morning and return the same afternoon!  Swift & Company could get their hams and bacon to St. Petersburg faster, and the St. Petersburg Daily Times could get their newspapers on Tampa Streets in about an hour.  Cameron and Barkley Co. of Tampa could rush needed industrial supplies and parts to customers in

St. Petersburg the same day as ordered. 


     As mentioned earlier, the same airboat sold as the Lark of Duluth, (Now used equipment) became the same plane with which Tony Jannus made his historical first commercial passenger flight from St. Petersburg's Vinoy Basin of today, to Tampa's present Brorein Street Bridge.  A Burgert Brothers photographer took movie footage of the arrival, and other photographers took

standard photographs.  The films were later shown in local movie theaters as featured attractions.


     It should be mentioned here that the "power of the press" played a very important role in the successful "St Petersburg- Tampa Airboat Line.  For two of the three months, barely a day passed without an update on Tony Jannus and the airboat trips of the day.  Every successful endeavor was glorified, along with "the skill of Tony Jannus", and the "seaworthiness of the airboat".  Every minor mishap was reported, as accurately as a non-flying reporter could write, and the solutions were equally reported.  Most mechanical breakdowns were reported, the necessary repairs required, and how long it took to make the repairs.  Extra attention was given to those breakdowns Jannus repaired on the bay, after being forced to land because of mechanical problems.  One in particular was clogged fuel lines to three of the six cylinders, and Jannus making a smooth landing under half power.   Observers from Benoist saw the airboat from shore and sent a launch out to offer assistance, but Jannus flew the craft back under it's own power, beating the launch to the boat slip of the hanger.


     Little is said about Tony Jannus, the could-have-been environmentalist.  He admired the soaring pelicans of the bay, and could often be seen swerving sharply to avoid hitting one.  Conversely, he didn't mind accepting a special fare from a Harry Railsback on January 15, 1914 to use the airboat on a duck-shoot. The flock was so thick, and the aircraft was so close, Railsback shot three ducks with a single shotgun blast.  Jannus landed the craft close enough for Railsback to scoop up his kill.  Upon returning, Railsback proudly held the ducks up high, boasting how he bagged all three with one shotgun blast.  


     There is also little said about Tony Jannus and his conscientious dedication to passenger safety.  It was standard practice for Jannus and other pilots of the line to physically check the wing "stays" (We'd probably call them guy wires today), examine the propeller, and inspect for damage to the airboat-- before each flight.  More importantly, Tony Jannus trained himself to become an expert long-distance swimmer, and learned life saving procedures on the offchance he crashed over water, he could save his passenger.  Jannus paid a swimming "professor" for private swimming lessons with that thought in mind.  Although Jannus was considered a "daredevil", he rarely took chances as a pilot, other than swoops, sharp turns, steep climbs, or testing a plane for top speed.  He never did loop-the-loops, or tailspins.


     During the three active months of existence, the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line was helped greatly by income from individual rides of those interested in the novelty of flying, in addition to business people trying to save valuable time, or from the payloads of light freight.  An example of the daily proceeds might be the total sum of the first day of the airline-- $615.  Most of the first day's income was dedicated to erecting harbor lights for the benefit of sea and air traffic.


     Judging from write-ups in publications in later years, the three-month contract was not renewed because the novelty of the airboat wore off.  However, if one reads the accounts of the St. Petersburg Daily Times of 1914-- the novelty had actually worn off for the media.  The same media which was the self-proclaimed advocates of "The World's First Commercial Airline" slowly moved the airboat line and Tony Jannus news further back in its pages, with shorter and shorter articles. 


     Could it have been the lack of reports which caused the financiers and the City of St. Petersburg not to renew their contract with the airboat line? Certainly, the crowds were still showing up to watch the takeoffs and landings of the wondrous flying boat.  Certainly the business people still had important meetings to attend on the other side of the bay.  Certainly the St. Petersburg Daily times still had timely bundles of newspapers to rush to the streets of Tampa.  Swift & Company still had their hams to deliver as they did in the past.  So far, there's been nothing said about any great losses or debts of the airboat line.  Could the failure really have been caused by disagreements among the investors, among internal management, or among the brothers Tony and Roger?


     One common belief for the St. Petersburg Times abandoning news of the airboat line was because the City of St. Petersburg turned its interest toward railroads.  Quite so!  Railroads were almost as new a novelty for St. Petersburg then as the airboat had been.  The railroad could bring in volumes of tourists, and many tons of supplies.  It would literally connect the city with the entire country.  The St. Petersburg Daily Times could not ignore that kind of news, which would promise to have even more day-to-day updates for its readers.


     At the same time, the United States was at war with Mexico, which naturally required front page for all newspapers.


     After the airboat line closed on March 31, 1914, Tony Jannus left Tampa Bay, and returned to the area in February 1915.  He flew between 100 and 125 unscheduled flights to various places from Tampa's Ballast Point Park.  The papers carried some of his activities, but rarely front page.


     In May, there were a few tiny articles about Thomas Benoist, and an article about Jannus refusing to "stand" for his Air Pilot's License examination for the Aero Club of America.  Tony and Roger Jannus were scheduled to leave for Paducah, Kentucky for some exhibition flights at a homecoming week celebration.  It was for that reason he saw no reason to take the flying test in

St. Petersburg. 


     In June 1915, Tony Jannus was test flying planes for Curtiss Aeroplanes and Motor Ltd. of Toronto, Canada.  Curtiss was producing a two-engine three-passenger bomber for the allied front in WWI. The latest contract was for the Czar's "air force". They were fighting the Turks in the Back Sea region.  Jannus went with the aircraft to teach the Russian pilots, and particularly to re-test fly the planes.  It was during one of those test flights when Tony Jannus crashed into the Black Sea.  The Russian Aviation Committee reported that Jannus was trying a steep climb and lost power, then plummeted into the sea.  The report claimed  "Antony Jannus was unable to fly the plane level because of shortcomings of the aircraft design."  Tony Jannus was 27 years

old when he died, and his body was never recovered. 


     Although his demise was a tragedy, Tony Jannus' contribution to commercial passenger airline flying will live for a long time at the St. Petersburg Historic & Flight Museum.  A replica of the Model "B"  Benoist #43 Airboat hangs from the ceiling, with the likeness of Tony Jannus and former Mayor Abe Pheil seated in the cockpit.  The curious will ask, "Why", and the Tony Jannus story will be told again-- and again.  The retelling of the "Worlds First Commercial Airline" story will be a worthy tribute to the man who made it all possible.



Click photo
St. Petersburg Museum of History

Copyright 1995 By Richard L. Servis Jr.
Approximately 2,188 words

* Member, Pegasus Writers Stable

Pegasus Writers Stable
Click on image for members mini-bios