Because I’m a bit weird, I found myself reading through a stack of newspapers from the early 20th Century recently. In those pages I found something that I hadn’t seen in a while, something almost foreign to the American public in our current time.
It was this: Absolute wonder and unrestrained excitement at the idea of aviation coming to town.
As most of us know, Wilbur and Orville successfully tested the first airplane in December 1903. What’s little talked about, however, is aviation’s relative uselessness in the early days.
It was awe inspiring for those who witnessed early flights, but the aircraft were flimsy and dangerous. They couldn’t do much more than fly short distances in a straight line. It was years before someone could keep an airplane aloft and under sufficient control for long enough to actually return to land at the place they took off.
The average guy or gal on the street couldn’t be blamed for wondering, “Yeah, it flies, but what good is it?”
The answer to that question came in 1914 when Tony Jannus began doing something unheard of — flying passengers and light freight across Tampa Bay in Florida. His chariot of choice was a Benoist flying boat.
This miracle of then-modern technology earned Page 1 newspaper coverage for its capacity to transform this relatively sleepy southern stop into a powerhouse of commerce.
That’s exactly what happened, too.
By April 1914 the spectacle of the flying boat was such a hit in Tampa/St. Pete that Sarasota wanted in on the action. That city also saw front-page newspaper coverage of the very same Tony Jannus coming to their town to demonstrate the potential of aviation.
The Sarasota Times said of the demonstrations: “The fact that a daily double schedule has been maintained between St. Petersburg and Tampa since the first of the year shows that the airboat is something more than a temporary exhibition novelty.”
More than a novelty. Who knew?
The reporter also found it noteworthy to point out that Mrs. I.R. Burns was the first woman to fly over Sarasota Bay with Jannus, as well as the first person to make an overland flight when her pilot flew them over the club house on shore.
Girl power, y’all.
Three years later the excitement over aviation was so profound Miami wanted to get in on the act.
A single airplane and pilot simply wasn’t enough to satisfy the demand, so a second pilot, E. W. Straub, began operating another Benoist flying boat (noted at the time as a hydroplane) in that southern city.
So successful was he, the Miami Herald opened a story about the phenomenon with the line, “The flying craze has struck Miami to such an extent that another flying boat will be brought here within the next few weeks.”
Yes, Miami was about to sport two flying boats for the use of local residents. The second was to be a larger model with five seats rather than the original three, and a 110-horsepower motor to help carry the load.
It took only 11 years to get from the first flight to the first regularly scheduled flight for hire. A decade later Juan Trippe was in Key West founding the basis for what would become Pan American Airways, the first international carrier.
Through it all the general public was enthusiastically along for the ride.
By the way, these newspaper stories also dispel the myth that so many of our older pilot friends tell of how inexpensive flying was when they started. It was never cheap. It probably never will be. But it’s more affordable now by a long shot.
When Tony Jannus began his adventures in Florida, a 20-minute seaplane ride cost the passenger $15. That sounds like a meager fee to us today, but reading through those same newspaper pages tells a different story: $15 could buy a new suit at Tallant & Graff in Bradentown (now Bradenton), a new pair of shoes could be had for $3.98, and the very best Kodak camera on the market was priced at $25. Heck you could buy a car for $350 or a sturdy little cottage for your family to live in for $1,800.
The price for an hour of flight time in a modern, certificated airplane of infinitely higher quality and dependability cost roughly 10 times what Jannus was charging a century ago. Ten times as many dollars for three times as much flight time. If you can find a good pair of quality shoes for $40, or a reliable car for $3,500, or a new home that meets your local building codes for $18,000, I’ll be very impressed indeed.
And lest you think the excitement and allure of aviation in the early 20th Century was a total novelty pursued only by the very wealthy, it’s worth noting between January and April 1914, Tony Jannus personally completed 627 flights between Tampa and St.Petersburg. Flights where he had two seats available for passengers.
So here we are in the early days of a new century, flying better aircraft, with a more dependable fuel supply, with a record of safety that is very good and getting even better. And we fly more affordably than our forefathers could have dreamed.
We’ve come far, yet our horizons continue to open up. Aviation has changed the world more and more rapidly than any other human invention, with the possible exception of electricity.
Opportunities abound for the casual participant as well as the professional. Let’s face it, we’ve got it good.
If Tony Jannus could have that big an impact with a seaplane as rickety and challenging to fly as the Benoist, imagine what each of us can do with the aircraft we’ve got to show off in front of our communities today.