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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014

Hill: Gulfport woman’s grandfather ties her to historic Jannus flight


A tour of Betsy Pheil’s compact Gulfport cottage provides a journey back into St. Petersburg history.

There’s a framed hand towel from the Pheil Hotel, a calendar from the St. Petersburg Novelty Works, a photo of the front of the Pheil Theater and many other historic artifacts from the early 20th Century.

Unless you’ve been around the city for a while or studied its history, the Pheil name might not mean anything, given that none of the Pheil buildings or businesses still exist.

What makes the name noteworthy – particularly now — is a centennial on the near horizon: the 100th anniversary of the first commercial airline flight, which took place on Jan. 1, 1914.

Betsy’s grandfather, A.C. “Abe” Pheil, put his name or stamp on many things before his premature death in 1922.

He was St. Petersburg’s mayor for a time, involved in its development as a thriving community and tourist destination.

He was also the first commercial airline passenger in history, flying in a Benoist Air Boat, piloted by Tony Jannus, roundtrip from St. Petersburg to Tampa.

That first flight on the short-lived St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line catapulted Phiel and his family into aviation history.

Phiel wrote a check for $400 for the trip, which he won in an auction. The plane had to make an unplanned stop midway to repair the chain on the propeller.

That first commercial airline flight was remarkable enough that President John F. Kennedy referenced its 50th anniversary in his Nov. 18, 1963, speech in Tampa just four days before his assassination in Dallas.

Unfortunately for St. Pete, he got the departure and arrival cities backwards, giving Tampa implied credit for being the birthplace of the pre-World War I commercial airline.

The centennial celebration began Friday with the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society’s annual award, given this year to Richard H. Anderson, CEO of Delta Airlines. Previous winners have included aviation icons such as Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, Lt. Gen. James Doolittle, Frank Borman, Brig. Gen. Charles “Chuck” Yeager and Sir Richard Branson.

More events are planned to honor that historic flight, including a reenactment of the flight.

Betsy was scheduled to attend the awards dinner Friday, as she has over the past very many years.

Her life and that of her twin brother Bill – the first twins born by cesarean section at what was then Mound Park Hospital — were “imprinted” by Abe’s flight, she said.

When she was in first grade, her teacher asked the class to identify a drawing of a plane. Betsy drew an air boat and got “a big red X” for her efforts.

School friends didn’t believe the story about her grandfather’s flight across the bay. “So we pretty much shut up about it until Kennedy spoke of the occasion in ’63,” she said.

Since Abe and the flight permeated her life, it isn’t surprising that Betsy got involved with the St. Petersburg Museum of History, which opened its Flight One wing in 1993. A reproduction of the Benoist hangs there.

One particularly memorable highlight of being a relative of the first commercial airline passenger was a trip to Washington, D.C., in 1995 for a reception in the Capitol celebrating the 10 billionth commercial airline passenger.

“It was amazing to stand next to Newt Gingrich while he talked about my grandfather’s bravery,” said Betsy.

“He brought up that the Wright Brothers had only flown 11 years before, so going up in a plane was courageous. ... His point was, think what it took to fly.”