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History - The Gentleman Adventurer

Tony Jannus

Tony Jannus, pilot of the world’s first scheduled commercial airline service

On 1 January 1914, a crowd of thousands gathered by the St Petersburg Municipal Pier, near Tampa Bay, Florida. They were getting ready to witness the first scheduled commercial airline service in a heavier-than-air aircraft. Although all would have been familiar with the only passenger—Mayor of St Petersburg, Abram C Pheil, who had won his seat at auction by bidding $400—most had come to catch a glimpse of the debonair pilot, Antony Habersack Jannus (Tony Jannus).

Jannus was already an accomplished aviator. On 1 March 1912, near St Louis, he piloted the biplane from which Albert Berry made the first ever parachute jump. The plane he flew was designed by Thomas W Benoist, for whom Jannus, along with his brother Roger, was working as a test pilot. Later that year, Jannus flew another Benoist aircraft—a Land Tractor Type XII mounted with floats—along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to set a 1,900-mile (3,058 km) overwater flight record. This momentous flight 100 years ago would provide the inspiration for the modern commercial air transport industry.

A dashing gentleman rarely without a glamorous girlfriend, Jannus went on to pilot actress Julia Bruns above Staten Island, New York, as part of a New York Times-sponsored air exhibition. He even took part in a race the following day, with the newspaper reporting that “the graceful Benoist biplane sailed along on an even keel...driven by the famous Tony Jannus.”

But it was as the world’s first commercial pilot that Jannus earned his place in the aviation hall of fame. Prior to 1914, travel between Tampa Bay and St Petersburg, situated on opposite sides of a bay, had to make use of a steamboat or an awkward three-hour rail journey. Horse and buggy or the newfangled automobiles of the time took even longer, over unpaved roads.

Impressed by the record-setting overwater flight Jannus made in 1912, Florida businessman Percival Fansler hit upon the idea of flying between the two cities using a Benoist flying boat. In 1913, he approached some St Petersburg businessmen with his plan and managed to win financial support for the venture. A 90-day contract with Benoist was signed on 17 December 1913 (the 10th anniversary of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s historic first flight). The St Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line—the world’s first scheduled airline—was born.

Jannus reportedly reached speeds of about 75 mph, although he never flew more than 50 feet above the water’s surface during the 23-minute flight. Some 2,000 people were on hand at Tampa to welcome Jannus and his reportedly nervous-looking first passenger Pheil. Thereafter, flights departed St Petersburg daily (except Sundays) at 10am and 2pm while return flights left Tampa at 11am and 3pm.
Unfortunately, Jannus’ thirst for adventure caught up with him a few years later. He died in 1916 when his Curtiss H-7 crashed into the Black Sea while he was training Russian pilots. Jannus’ body was never recovered.

His life may have been short but his legacy endures. He can rightly be called the father of modern commercial air transport, having provided the inspiration and the practical skills necessary to launch the St Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line. The Tony Jannus Award is one of the most highly prized in the industry, given for extraordinary accomplishment in commercial aviation.

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