Fantasy Of Flight Kicks Off New Year In Tampa Bay

Flight 2014, led by Fantasy of Flight founder and aviation enthusiast Kermit Weeks in cooperation with the City of St. Petersburg, aims to re-create history on New Year's Day.

The flight across Tampa Bay will replicate the inaugural flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa that Tony Jannus piloted with commercial air travel pioneer and former St. Petersburg Mayor Abram C. Pheil on the morning of Jan. 1, 1914.

The Benoist XIV sea plane that carried one passenger at a time between St. Petersburg and Tampa during the short-lived SPT Airboat Line, January through March, 1914, was the first heavier-than-air passenger airline service in the world, and the first airline service of any kind in the United States. Pheil paid $400 to take the first commercial flight, and the intrepid air travelers who followed paid $5 for the 22-minute ride across the Bay. At the time, a trip around the bay by automobile took several hours and the alternative, a ride by steamboat, took two hours.

To commemorate the centennial anniversary of the historic flight, Weeks plans to pilot an authentic reproduction Benoist XIV sea plane across Tampa Bay on New Year's Day. Re-creating the quick trip across the Bay is no small feat, considering that the entire aircraft, including its engine, had to be built from scratch -- a project more than three years in progress.

"During the luncheon when I was inducted into the Florida Historical Aviation Hall of Fame about three years ago, I was sitting at table with some people from Florida Historical Aviation Society. They happened to start talking about how they wanted to build a radio-controlled, one- third scale model of the plane Tony Jannus flew in 1914 to celebrate the anniversary, and I thought, 'Why build a model when you can build the real thing?' '' recalls Weeks.

Weeks and fellow aviation enthusiast Ken Kellett embarked on a research trip to the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where they poured over catalogs and photographs in the museum archives to piece together information about the Benoist XIV air boat -- only two of which were ever built, a century prior. They also studied the only surviving Benoist plane, a restored 1912 Type XII, to glean vital clues about construction techniques from the era. Armed with preliminary knowledge, Weeks and Kellett returned to Florida and assembled a team.

"I built my first flyable plane when I was a senior in high school, and I've personally built three airplanes from scratch during my lifetime. Ken, on the other hand, has built a lot more than me -- mostly static airplanes that are not meant to fly, but he has made flyable airplanes as well. He's got a real knowledge and understanding of what it takes to build something from scratch,'' Weeks says.

Modernizing Only Where Necessary

Kellett began carpentry work in the summer of 2010 on the plane's hundreds of wooden parts, which are carved from airplane spruce and oak, as Weeks says was typical of aircraft manufacturing prior to the the use of aluminum in World War II and the subsequent development of carbon fiber. The plane hull and brass radiator, he says, also match the materials used in the original 1913 model. In fact, the sole departure the Flight 2014 makes from the original plane is in the material used to cover the wings.

"Originally, they would have covered this with a rubberized balloon fabric,'' Weeks says. "One important thing with an airplane is sealing it, because if air goes through, it doesn't work. The other thing is that you want it to tighten so it's not loose.

"Back then, they used what was available. Gas balloons had been around since the 1800s and they had a specialized fabric that wouldn't let gas leak out, but that was flexible and had the ability to stretch, so they used that for the plane. We didn't have that material available, so we used a muslin fabric that would have come along shortly after that, and we hand-brushed airplane dope on it.''

Weeks says that although similar attempts have been made to replicate the plane, including an attempt in 1984 by the Florida Aviation Historical Society to recreate the flight for its 70th anniversary with a reproduction Benoist air boat that was ultimately unable to carry both a pilot and passenger, none have risen to the same standard of historical authenticity that the Flight 2014 project strives to attain.

"A replica looks like one on the outside, but isn't the real deal. Ours is a reproduction of the original model,'' Weeks explains. He adds that what's on the inside, the engine, is what truly differentiates the Flight 2014 Benoist XIV from the replica planes created in the past.

"When people build old airplanes from before the end of World War I, because of the rarity of original engines, they usually put modern engines in them. While I understand that from a cost standpoint, the difference is this: If it's supposed to sound like a Harley and it looks like Harley, but sounds like a Yamaha -- well, that just takes the fun out of it,'' Weeks says.

He estimates that materials on the aircraft body cost approximately $35,000, while casting patterns for the engine cost upwards of $100,000 alone.

Getting The Right Engine

Weeks says that 100 years ago, the engineers who manufactured the original Benoist XIV could have pulled the Roberts engine that powered the plane right off the retail shelves, but today, the only six known surviving Roberts engines on the planet exist in museum galleries.

A monetary donation to Red Hook, New York’s Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, allowed the team to borrow an inoperable 1913 Roberts engine that had been damaged in a crash to reverse-engineer, and the Flight 2014 team enlisted the expertise of Steve Littin of Vintage Auto and Rebuilds in Chardon, Ohio to build a new engine from scratch. In the process, Littin's team made a surprising discovery that explained why the 70th anniversary Benoist XIV reproduction was unable to leave the ground with the pilot and passenger in 1984.

"In the 1913 catalogue, the engine is listed at 75 horsepower, so when the guys built the airplane that now hangs in the St. Pete Museum for the 70th anniversary, they got a modern 75-horsepower marine engine. But here's the thing: The guys working on our engine in Ohio have been measuring the horsepower under load, and it turns out the engine we're running actually puts out 104 horse power. Back then they weren't advertising the maximum horsepower like they do today. The guys who made the plane for the 70th anniversary didn't know that, and so they couldn't get the plane off the water with two people because the modern engine didn't have enough horsepower.''

The reproduction Roberts engine made its journey to Fantasy of Flight in Lakeland, Fla. in early December to meet the plane, now near completion, three years since construction began.

"You have no idea how loud this thing is,'' Weeks says, in a tone of boyish glee. "If it sounds like a modern boat engine, then you can hold a conversation while it's running, but with this you can't even scream and hear what the other person is saying.''

Throughout the remainder of the month, Kellett, Weeks and the eight-person aircraft department at Fantasy of Flight are putting in seven-day work weeks, taking off only Christmas Day, to prepare for the Jan. 1, 2014 flight.

"On some level, we all have a hand in writing the script of our lives before we got here. I wrote into my script that I was going to simulate what they went through 100 years ago, and I am certainly feeling the pressure they must have been under in 1913 to prepare for this New Year's Day flight,'' Weeks says.

Practice, Practice, Practice

With the plane construction nearly completed, Weeks says that getting the hang of flying the Benoist XIV and getting it licensed to fly by the first of the year are his two final challenges.

Although Weeks has been training for the flight in a 1909 Herring-Curtiss Pusher land plane, similar in type and speed range to the Benoist XIV, he says his first test flight in the Benoist may take place as late as Christmas Day, and that he will have quite a bit to learn about the plane before the New Year.

"There is a five-hour minimum limit that I have to fly the airplane before I can fly a passenger in it. I'm already armed with the knowledge that the previous attempt couldn't get the airplane off the water with two people, so at some point, I need to start sand-bagging the passenger seat before I put a live human in there,'' Weeks says.

"The engine is a bit of an unknown, but it's becoming more and more known to us by the day. It doesn't accelerate or deccelerate very well, and it does not like to run unless loaded up. With a propeller on, it will have somewhat load, but I really won’t know until I'm flying it, and at that point I'm dealing with learning it while I'm in the air.''

Weeks must also become comfortable with running the controls, which he says are configured differently than any aircraft he has piloted in the past. A pulley-less, closed-cable system that runs through hollow, 90 degree-angled tubes in the Benoist determines the friction and heaviness of the controls, which Weeks says will also be an unknown element until the first time he pilots the plane.

"I'll have to learn on the fly -- pun intended,'' Weeks jokes.

Despite the challenges that still must be overcome, Weeks is confident that as long as the plane is licensed in time for the holiday and if the weather allows, 100 years of aviation history will come to life above the glittering waters of Tampa Bay on New Year's Day.

In the meantime, you can keep tabs on the progress of Flight 2014 with daily updates from Kermit Weeks on Facebook leading up to the New Year's morning flight.

Jessi Smith, a native Floridian, is a freelance writer who lives and works in downtown Sarasota. When she isn't writing about local arts and culture, she can generally be found practicing yoga or drinking craft beers and talking about her magnificent cat. Jessi received her bachelor's degree in art history from Florida International University and, predictably, perpetually smells of patchouli. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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