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Percival Fansler relishes at least 23 minutes of fame!

By Scott Taylor HartzelL of the St. Petersburg Times

Published December 29, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - Just before New Year's Day 1914, area businessmen balked when Percival Elliott Fansler asked them to catapult air transportation into the future.

"They thought I had a mighty clever idea, but they didn't believe there was any such thing as a flying boat," Fansler once wrote.

Fansler did convince 12 locals to back his St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line and the world's first commercial flight, scheduled for New Year's Day. Bridge builder George Gandy and newspaperman Lew B. Brown were included. Also involved were developer C. Perry Snell and real estate agent Noel Mitchell.

Each benefactor agreed to pay Fansler $50 - minus the passenger's fare of $5 - every day in January 1914 that four scheduled trips were made between here and Tampa.

Fansler hired pilot Anthony Habersack Jannus, 24, of the Benoist Aircraft Co. in St. Louis. Jannus was a "skillful flier . . . always full of ginger," Fansler said.

On Dec. 31, the No. 43 airboat Fansler acquired from Tom Wesley Benoist arrived via the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad.

Jannus assembled the Model 14-B craft that afternoon on the waterfront sand, attaching the skids first, followed by the wings.

The $5,600 airboat's wingspan measured 441/2 feet. (Today's largest airliner's wings stretch nearly 100 yards.) It had two open cockpits and a Roberts 75-horsepower, six-cylinder engine that hiccupped and coughed. Once assembled, the craft weighed about 1,400 pounds.

"I was swimming with a friend when we saw Jannus assembling the plane," local musician Luke Atkins said in 1983. "Told (Jannus) we were looking for a job."

That New Year's Day about 9:30 a.m., Atkins was spreading axle grease on a ramp near the Benoist. Johnny Jones' Italian band played Dixie while 3,000 onlookers, some betting on the outcome, filled the Municipal Pier.

Vying to be the flight's first passenger, former Mayor A.C. Pheil battled Mitchell, Thornton Parker and the Board of Trade's L.A. Whitney in an auction cried by F.C. Bannister. Pheil won the honor for $400. "He had talked about (the flight) for several days," Pheil's wife, Lottie, said later.

At 10 a.m. that Sunday, the Benoist slid down Atkins' greased ramp into the central yacht basin and then sped away at 15 feet into the air. Spectators raced to telegraph word of Jannus' Tampa arrival.

"I was worried all the time (Pheil) was gone," Lottie Pheil said.

During the flight, "the chilling winds had . . . whistled through the speeding plane and we had to tighten up our garments," Pheil recalled.

When an engine chain escaped the propeller shaft and forced the airboat into the drink, both men went to work. "My grandfather arrived in Tampa with grease all over his hands," Betsy Pheil said.

Amid a cheering Tampa crowd, the 23-minute trip concluded. Pheil ordered supplies for the Pinellas Dredging Co. while there. Twenty minutes after leaving Tampa, Jannus - wearing a bow tie, blue coat and white trousers - landed back here at 11:20 a.m.

The Benoist had consumed 10 gallons of gas and 1 gallon of oil on the 36-mile venture. It had surpassed the efficiency of other transportation modes: steamboat, two hours; car, six hours; train, 12 hours.

heil met humorist Will Rogers that day, initiating a friendship resulting in occasional dinners and numerous postcard exchanges.

"I sure hope I can do what you've done someday," Rogers told the raincoat-clad Pheil then. Rogers died in 1935 at age 55 in an Alaskan plane crash.

During a second auction, Mitchell prevailed with a $175 bid. Mitchell - the father of the orange benches that later became green - paid another $25 to cruise over the basin. Jones also took a $15 trip that day. The New Year's Day event garnered $615, which went mostly to harbor light construction.

On Jan. 2, Mae Peabody of Dubuque, Iowa, became the first woman to take the Tampa journey. Fansler's line expanded into Sarasota, Bradenton and Tarpon Springs. It transported more than 1,200 passengers without a hitch before its contract expired three months later.

In 1914, the Benoist was sold to Bird Latham and was destroyed after plunging into Pennsylvania's Conneaut Lake. While flying for Curtiss Aeroplane Co. in 1916, Jannus died at age 27 after crashing into the Black Sea.

Pheil died of cancer in 1922. He was 55.

Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at [email protected]

© Copyright 2002-2004, St. Petersburg Times

Reprinted with the author's permission.