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How do you recreate the first airline?

Just over 100 years ago, a biplane from St Petersburg to Tampa heralded the world’s first airline. We hear from the group battling to rebuild the Benoist

How do you recreate the first airline?

On 1 January 1914, the first ever scheduled passenger flight took off, making the 35km journey across the water from St Petersburg to Tampa, in Florida. Aboard the Benoist XIV was pilot Tony Jannus and his passenger, former St Petersburg mayor Abram C Pheil, who had paid US$400 at auction for the ticket, even if regular journeys on the newly-formed St Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line would cost US$5. 

Over the next three months, two of the tiny biplanes, designed by flight pioneer Thomas W Benoist, carried 1,205 passengers across Tampa Bay – until war intervened, and the world’s first airline ran aground.

Fast-forward 100 years, and aviation expert Kermit Weeks has rebuilt an exact replica of the Benoist, but is struggling to get it in the air. Weeks is the founder of Polk City’s Fantasy of Flight, a working museum that’s home to more than 100 rare and vintage aircraft.

He and his team of eight spent three years and more than 5,000 man hours rebuilding a replica of the Benoist, doing exhaustive research into the original design of the plane, while another company in Ohio found one of six original engines in the world and reverse-engineered it. The plan was to fly the plane on New Year’s Day 2014, but it wasn’t ready. “We just couldn’t get the power to get it out of the water,” says Weeks. “We just weren’t getting the throttle response.” Weeks still thinks he’ll crack it, though, and plans to get the plane working at some point this year. “It should fly – we’re missing part of the puzzle, but the damn thing should fly.”

While Weeks says the original Benoist “planted a stake in the ground for the modern airline”, he says that what inspired him about the project was the pioneering attitude behind the St Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line. “There’s no intrinsic value to society of this, but it’s about the human spirit behind it. Those guys were pushing boundaries.” 

fantasyofflight.com


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