On Saturday, February 6, 2021, I had the pleasure of attending the official dedication of the Benoist Airboat Sculpture at Benoist Centennial Plaza at the St. Pete Pier.
MGA Sculpture Studio, LLC of St. Petersburg was awarded the commission – the end result is a magnificent full-scale replica of the Benoist Airboat which flew between St. Petersburg and Tampa on January 1, 1914, marking the first commercial aviation flight in the history of aviation. With a 45-foot wingspan, the entire sculpture, including the basing element, weighs 16,000 pounds.
Sculptor Mark Aeling shared with an enraptured audience the complexity of the project and how it was broken down into three components: wings, fuselage and tail. This allowed Mark and his team to stage the fabrication, transportation and installation of the finished sculpture.
Also on hand to speak at the dedication was Tampa Bay’s own Astronaut Nicole Stott. Nicole completed her first long-duration space flight as a Flight Engineer on the International Space Station Expeditions 20 and 21 and performed one spacewalk with a total duration of 6 hours and 39 minutes. Her second space trip, 2.24 to 3.0.2011, was the 39th and final mission for the Space Shuttle Discovery.
Commercial Aviation History-St. Petersburg
The first flight took off from the St. Petersburg Central Yacht Basin on New Year’s Day 1914. Nearly 3,000 people waved good-bye as the plane headed across Tampa Bay, reaching a peak of approximately 150 feet. It was piloted by Tony Jannus and its single passenger was St. Pete Mayor Abram C. Pheil.
After a flight of 23 minutes and 21 miles, including a stop on Tampa Bay to make an engine adjustment, the airbus (what is today called a seaplane) touched down on the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa where it was welcomed by an even larger crowed.
The idea of organizing early aviation into a regularly scheduled airline business was the brainchild of Percival E. Fansler, an engineer from Jacksonville. Mr. Fansler pitched his idea for the airline to Tom Benoist, a plane manufacturer. Named the “St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line”, it was the world’s first regularly scheduled fixed-wing airline and the genesis of today’s modern commercial aviation industry.
According to historian Will Michaels, who published The Making of St. Petersburg in 2012, the Benoist Airboat was an early version of a seaplane, able to take off and land on water. This was essential since Tampa Bay had plenty of water but no airport. The plane would land in Tampa Bay and float up to the hangar on the pier to discharge passengers.
The St. Pete Pier
After three years of construction, the new 26-acre Pier District opened to the public in July 2020. It promises limitless fun for everyone, from first-time visitors to long-time residents, creating the ultimate place to stroll, bike, dine, drink, shop, swim, take in a concert and much more.
In addition to the Benoist sculpture, you will marvel at Janet Echelman’s, Bending Arc, a monumental aerial sculpture that gently billows above the Pier. It is composed of 1,662,528 knots, 180 miles of twine and spans 424 feet and measures 72 feet at its tallest point. In the daytime, the sculpture casts shadow drawings on the park and people below and at night it transforms into a glowing beacon of magenta and violet light.
The World’s First Airline – The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, by Gay Blair White
Hidden History of St. Petersburg, by Will Michaels
Vintage St. Pete: The Golden Age of Tourism – and More
St. Petersburg Communities
Greater Pinellas Point
Historic Old Northeast
Historic Roser Park
Isla del Sol
If you’re interested in any of these of communities or live in one and are thinking of selling, talk to The Mesimer Team.