Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Reflecting the Centennial of a 23-Mile First!

I’m not sure where I will be on January 1, 2014 when a major milestone celebrates its 100-year anniversary but I’ll be thinking about it in November as I survey Old Tampa Bay when I tag-along to a wedding.

I’ll be standing along the seawall at Safety Harbor north of St. Petersburg where the peninsula between the bay and the Gulf of Mexico chokes down to just a few miles across.

Looking South toward the narrow mouth of Old Tampa Bay, I’ll have a perfect view of where the very first-scheduled, fixed-wing commercial passenger flight crossed over just below Weeden and Picnic islands on its 23 mile flight path from St. Petersburg before landing at the mouth of the Hillsborough River in Tampa.

St. Petersburg is the Durham of that polycentric region while Tampa is the Raleigh.  The similarities are cultural too.

St. Petersburg has a distinct personality including indigenous culture including a local history museum, founded after the flight which features a replica of the Benoist Model XIV seaplane, Number 43 flown by the St. Petersburg – Tampa Airboat Line.

When not on scheduled runs, the seaplanes flew charters to and from places such as Safety Harbor where I’ll be staying and north to Tarpon Springs.  The former mayor of St. Pete was the first passenger on the first flight, not because he was a dignitary or because the community underwrote the venture.

He won that privilege at auction as many others did the first few weeks.  His bid was $400.  The regular fare for the trip was $5 and proceeds of the auction went to buy harbor lights for St. Petersburg.

The two cities anchoring the route were about the same size then, just less than 10,000 souls each.  But St. Petersburg, as is often true of communities with a solid sense of place, was the more entrepreneurial of the two and half its population turned out to see the first airliner take-off following a parade from downtown.

Tampa sniped , “All airboat passengers have been from St. Petersburg and are apparently eager to get to Tampa.” A similar number came down to see the seaplane land with the first passenger.

St. Pete countered, “'It is noticeable that the time from Tampa is always faster than the time to Tampa. Once having reached Tampa, no matter how anxious to get there, the passengers are always in a hurry to get away.”

Back in the day, traveling across the bay between the two cities by steamship took two and a half hours, by train twelve hours.  The new airline flight took 22 minutes.

When I learned to fly a few years ago and before I came to the realization that cost and sheer logistics of flying as a hobby made it impractical for me, I flirted with the the idea of an ICON A5.

The revolutionary new single-pontoon sport seaplane can also land on wheels and fold up to be transported like a boat.  It even has a cool parachute that deploys in emergencies to bring the entire plane down safely.  Then I realized it costs almost as much as a house like mine.

While similar in some aspects, the Benoit seaplane used in that first commercial airline venture flew just five feet off the ground and even landed briefly in route that first day to tweak something because the engine was misfiring.

With a two-stroke engine like my Harley Crossbones, it had 28% less horse power.

St. Petersburg is known for other firsts, such as implementing a dual water system that reuses treated wastewater instead of putting it into the bay, which the newly founded EPA prohibited in 1971.  It was quickly adopted by other communities up the peninsula and in other areas of Florida.

But the entrepreneurialism behind the first airline began in Missouri not Florida where the Benoist Flying Boat was designed, built and tested on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.  It was a boat engine salesman who lived in St. Petersburg who saw its airline potential.

That first passenger airline ran until the snowbirds went home for the summer.  It had only been a decade since the first flight in North Carolina or the “firster” flight now documented in Connecticut.

The federal government made further commercial flights viable a few years later through research and development during World War I and after by subsidizing airmail routes that evolved into passenger airlines such as United.

True innovation begins at the margins.  Back then, airlines understood that while commercial aviation is all about the destinations, the flight to get there is pivotal to the overarching brand of travel, not just a means of transportation.

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