The world of 100 years ago was quite different than the one we inhabit today. There was no central heat or air-conditioning back then. Private dwellings and places of business were drafty and cold, or insufferably hot, depending on the season. Distances were covered on foot, or on horseback, or in a wagon that bumped along a dirt road with all the grace and poise of a bag of rocks falling down a stairwell. Electricity was scarce at best.
So with all that going against it, why is the past so intriguing? Maybe because it’s known – or at least partially known, and yet it’s still up for discussion. What happened is generally a given. But why it happened, or how it happened is often as much a mystery to us as it was to the bystanders of the day.
Case in point: I give you the Benoist flying boat that established the first scheduled commercial air route in the world. The year was 1914, the place was Tampa Bay, Florida. And the pilot was Tony Jannus, a daredevil of a man who flew airplanes when airplanes were barely understood.
In those olden days there were precious few paved roads on this sandbar known as the Sunshine State. The trip from St. Petersburg to Tampa was an all-day endeavor. Getting from one city to the other and back again before the sun went down was nearly an impossibility.
Yet the cities lay only a short distance apart as the crow flies. By land, and without the benefit of the bridges that exist today, the distance is nearly 30 miles. Imagine such a distance being covered with sand road beneath your feet, mosquitoes nipping at your flesh, and Spanish moss reaching down to knock your hat off over and over again. Why, if you kept up a four mph pace, you could make the trip in just under eight hours.
If you had money you could take the steamboat or the train, of course. But neither of those methods was quick or easy, either. No matter what, Floridians of the early 20th Century were facing hours of inconvenience to travel a route that could literally be seen from start to finish across the Bay.
So along comes Tony Jannus with a ricketey basket of sticks and cloth that he says can carry you across the Bay in 20 minutes. On his first flight he did it in 23. That was close enough for the well-heeled businessmen of the time. They were ready to go. And go they did.
Today, as you cruise along Interstate 4 through central Florida, you might be forgiven if your head snaps around and you do a double-take while passing Lake Agnes next to Fantasy of Flight in the rural paradise known as Polk City. There, spouting spray and roaring along like a steam train on steroids, is an almost perfect replica of the Benoist flying boat. It plows through the water, struggling to find its way onto the step. The pilot works the controls like a pro, but a pro who has never seen a flying example of the type, and has never had the benefit of talking to anyone who has ever flown one.
This is test piloting pre-World War I style.
Kermit Weeks is the pilot and the owner of this peculiar craft. His considerable collection of aircraft stands watch nearby as he struggles to bring this latest creation, or re-creation, to life. His team of restoration specialists stand ready to assist or advise as the situation requires, while Kermit focuses a significant portion of his attention on the task at hand — how to make this anachronism of an aircraft fly.
The question is self-evident. Why do it? The Benoist will never see fare-paying passengers again. International airports with customs service, transport category aircraft, and centrally heated and air-conditioned terminals stand on either side of Tampa Bay today. Tampa International Airport sits only nine nautical miles from the St. Petersburg/Clearwater airport.There is no need for a Benoist. It can serve no commercial purpose, as it did 100 years ago.
I have not asked him, but I think I know what Kermit would say if the question was posed to him. “Why, Kermit? Why?”
I think his answer would be something like this: Because there is something wrong with a culture that discards revolutionary developments simply because they aren’t revolutionary any longer. Because I believe we should know not just that the Tony Jannus and the Benoist flew over Tampa Bay for three months in 1914, I think we should know how he did it. We should see and hear and feel the anticipation of the trip. We should understand the sacrifice, the risk, and the daring it took to fly this machine in the days when the total number of aircraft in the world was less than the number tied down today at a general aviation airport located a stone’s throw from where these momentous flights originally occurred.
Maybe Kermit’s right, or at least his imagined response to my proposed question is correct. We should know where we’ve been, in detail, if we’re ever going to truly appreciate and understand where we’re going — and why it’s so important that we go there — as a culture and as a people.
Aviation is every bit as riveting, as ground-breaking, and as personally rewarding as it ever was. We just have to embrace it as a total experience, and it will be so.