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Centennial repeat planned of Jannus' 1914 flight over Tampa Bay


Published:   |   Updated: December 28, 2013 at 12:36 PM

Watching pilot Tony Jannus take flight in his Benoist airboat was a sensation for the thousands who gathered along the St. Petersburg waterfront 100 years ago on New Year's Day.

Kermit Weeks hopes to recapture a measure of that wonder on Wednesday with his reproduction of that bi-wing seaplane, which he has worked to re-create down to the tiniest details.

Crews at Weeks' Fantasy of Flight attraction in Polk City last weekend brushed a final coat of green paint on the plane's slender hull, built of sturdy Sitka spruce pine.

Its wings, made of wood and long sheets of white muslin coated with lacquer, lay detached on either side.

It appeared to be an expertly crafted model plane ready to be hung from the ceiling of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

But Weeks intends to fly it Wednesday, sharing its 36-inch-wide cockpit with a passenger just as Jannus did — that is, if the Federal Aviation Administration approves.

“Although the FAA doesn't care if I kill myself, they do care if I kill somebody else,” said Weeks, who has invested four years of meticulous research, staff hours and his own money to construct the plane from scratch.

As New Year's Day approaches, Weeks and his crew are scrambling to get the aircraft tested and approved for a passenger. If all goes well, Weeks is scheduled to launch from St. Petersburg's North Yacht Basin at 10 a.m. Wednesday and retrace Jannus' 23-minute trek across the bay to the Davis Islands Seaplane Basin near Peter O. Knight Airport.

“Knock on wood, we're going to make it. I believe we can, but, boy, it's going to be down to the wire — really down to the wire,” Weeks said last weekend.

It may be hard to re-create the sense of novelty that brought 3,000 people out to the waterfront on a cold morning Jan. 1, 1914, to watch the launch of what is considered the first regularly scheduled commercial flight.

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It had been 10 years since the Wright brothers' historic flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C., and the concept of selling tickets for passenger flights had yet to take off. It was Jacksonville engineer Percy Fansler who talked St. Petersburg business leaders into investing in a venture to ferry travelers across the expanse of Tampa Bay in a fraction of the time it took to go by steamboat, car or train.

He contracted plane designer Thomas Benoist to provide the aircraft and enlisted Jannus, a famed test pilot, to fly it.

The $400 that former St. Petersburg Mayor Abe Pheil paid for the honor of being the first passenger still seems exorbitant today for such a short trip.

The regular fare for the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line's twice-daily flights was $5 one way.

“The idea was crystallized that you could do a lot more than novelty with this new science of aviation, that it could be organized into a business,” St. Petersburg historian Will Michaels said.

The seaplane reportedly ferried 1,205 people from January through early May during the busy tourist season, but the outbreak of World War I that summer curtailed the business. Jannus would die during the war in an accident while training Russian pilots to fly.

Historians and aviation enthusiasts mark the event as the first milestone in commercial aviation, but for Weeks, it recalls a time before mass air transit became commonplace.

“In the beginning, it was excitement, it was new, it was adventure, it was exploration, it was traveling to new places,” Weeks said. “A lot of that's gone today.”

Weeks' career as an aerobatics pilot, collector and builder of vintage airplanes reflects his passion for reviving that sense of wonder.

The exhibits at Fantasy of Flight, off Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando, showcase a century of flight history, from early biplanes to World War II bombers, some of them still airworthy.

At age 17, Weeks started building his first homemade airplane, which he flew four years later, and he has constructed several functional historical reproductions since then.

His reputation among area enthusiasts may have led members of the Florida Aviation Hall of Fame to tap him for the Benoist reproduction at his induction four years ago.

A group had planned to build a radio controlled model of the airboat for the centennial of the Jannus flight, but Weeks tossed out a different idea.

“I just happened to make an offhand comment — 'Well, maybe I'll build one.' — and they just latched on to me,” he said. So began a painstaking process to re-create the aircraft by hand, with no instructions or old schematics to offer guidance.

On his crew is the man who built a replica of the Wright brothers' flyer and flew it at Kitty Hawk in 1978. Ken Kellett says the Benoist has been a much more difficult project.

“With every other airplane I've built, I had something to work with,” he said. “There are no drawings. This whole airplane is in my head.”

Using scraps of archival data and photographs, Weeks' crew has built nearly everything from scratch, including the 75 horsepower Roberts engine, which roars like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle when cranked.

Weeks has been faithful to the original design, even in features that make the plane challenging to pilot.

The main control stick in the middle of the cockpit is conventional, but an additional wooden lever to the pilot's left that moves the rudder is not. Foot pedals operate the throttle.

“He wants to fly it the way it was originally done,” Kellett said.

The peculiar controls may have caused a similar seaplane based on the same design to crash last summer in Minnesota, he said. Moments after takeoff, the pilot took a 35-degree nose dive into a lake. He wasn't seriously injured.

“The only saving grace here is it's slow,” Kellett said, adding that the plane's maximum speed is 64 mph.

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The FAA must decide whether Weeks has logged sufficient test flight hours to safely ferry a passenger. Weather conditions New Year's morning also will be a factor.

Weeks recalls that Jannus had to land halfway through his first trip to adjust a chain. The pilot and his passenger were covered with grease when they touched down in Tampa, he said.

In Weeks' plane, there's also a wooden paddle in the cockpit, just in case.

Weeks said he has a passenger in mind.

“Whether she really wants to go after she sees and hears the thing is another story,” he said.

For Weeks, the novelty of this flight in the age of jetliners is in the experience, which will feel much like it did for Jannus 100 years ago.

“You're hanging out there like a bird, and it's just awesome,” he said.

 

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277

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