Tony Jannus (1889-1916)

The world’s first scheduled passenger airline service was the St Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line that operated between these two cities in Florida

Issue: 1 / 2016By Joseph Noronha

Strapped into a comfortable Boeing 787 Dreamliner seat, ready to fly to another continent, a thought may arise, “When and where did airline travel begin?” The world’s first scheduled passenger airline service was the St Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line that operated between these two cities in Florida and its first flight took off on January 1, 1914. The man at the controls was Tony Jannus, an experienced test pilot and barnstormer. He was one of the most famous American aviators of his day.

Antony Habersack ‘Tony’ Jannus was born in Washington DC on July 22, 1889. At age 21, he became a boat engine mechanic. After he attended an air show in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1910, he became deeply interested in aviation. He soon signed up for flight training and following some cursory instruction, began to fly on his own. His elder brother Roger also learned to fly. In 1911, both brothers were hired as test pilots and flight instructors by the aircraft manufacturer Thomas W. Benoist in St Louis, Missouri. Tony’s technical background qualified him to get deeply involved in the experimental and design aspects of aviation and he became a prominent aircraft designer as well as a principal stockholder of the Benoist Aircraft Company. Under the Benoist banner, he proceeded to fly at various exhibitions in the Midwest, testing military aircraft and aerial weapons and putting up a number of spectacular demonstrations. For instance, in 1912, he set an overwater flight record on a Benoist Land Tractor Type XII mounted with floats. He flew a distance of 3,050 km following the course of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers from Omaha, Nebraska to New Orleans. On March 1, 1912, he took Captain Albert Berry aloft to make the world’s first parachute jump from an aircraft. In September 1912, he set an American record for the most passengers till then by ferrying three people on a 10-minute flight. But his moment of greatest glory came over a year later in the shape of the St Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line.

The driving force behind the world’s first scheduled airline service was Percival Elliott Fansler, a Florida-based sales representative. Fansler’s love for racing boats naturally attracted him to aircraft and this led him to Thomas Benoist. The two began to correspond on the possibility of setting up a commercial airline and finally settled on flights between St Petersburg and Tampa, a distance of about 37 km by air across Tampa Bay. At that time, a person wishing to make the journey between these places needed two hours by ship, four to 12 hours by railroad and up to 20 hours by road, since automobiles were still fairly primitive and the road was unpaved. So the attraction of travel by air was obvious. Fansler signed a 90-day contract with Benoist who would provide aircraft and crew for two daily round trips. That’s how Tony Jannus, his brother Roger, and their mechanic J.D. Smith soon landed up in St Petersburg. The Benoist “Flying Boat” No. 43, made mostly of spruce wood and linen, arrived in parts and was promptly assembled. Publicised as “a motor boat with wings and an air propeller” it was 26 feet long, had a wingspan of 44 feet and weighed just 570 kg. It had a Roberts engine, a pusher propeller and floats. Although the plane, priced at $4,250, was meant to take only one passenger on a single seat, two passengers of small build, could fit.

By New Year’s Day 1914, the planned launch date, deft publicity had aroused intense public interest in St Petersburg. There was a parade, a band and an enthusiastic crowd of 3,000 to witness the historic inauguration. Since there was room for only one passenger, the lucky one had to be chosen by auction. After some brisk bidding, the world’s first fare-paying passenger was ex-Mayor Abram C. Pheil who bid $400 for the coveted ticket, against the standard fare of $5 for a one-way trip. Fansler, addressing the excited crowd said, “The airboat line to Tampa will only be a forerunner of great activity along these lines in the near future. What was impossible yesterday is an accomplishment today, while tomorrow heralds the unbelievable.”

Believe it or not, the world’s first scheduled flight took off precisely on schedule, at 10 a.m. The “Flying Boat” No. 43, with Tony Jannus at the controls, flew at 50 feet most of the way, attaining a maximum speed of 120 km per hour. During the journey, the engine began misfiring. Jannus just touched down in the Bay, made adjustments and took off again. About 23 minutes after departure, they landed and were greeted by an equally excited crowd at Tampa. Pheil soon finished his business and at the scheduled time of 11 a.m., they returned to St Petersburg. Thereafter, there were two round trips daily, six days a week. After the contract expired on March 31, 1914, the airline operated for another five weeks. But then passenger numbers began to decline and the final flight was on April 27, 1914. In all they had carried 1,205 passengers without injury to any and without a single serious accident. Plans to restart the airline the following year with a 12-passenger flying boat, came to naught when World War I began in July 1914.

After that, Tony Jannus joined the Curtiss Aeroplane Company as a test pilot. In October 1915, he was sent to Russia to test planes and to train fledgling Russian pilots to fly Curtiss H-7 aircraft into combat during World War I. On October 12, 1916, Jannus was training two Russian pilots near Sevastopol, Russia. Their aircraft experienced engine trouble and crashed into the Black Sea, killing all three on board. Jannus’s body was never found.