Aviation

St. Petersburg Museum of History and the Birth of Commercial Aviation

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Traveling today has been made a lot faster and more convenient because of air travel. Some planes can carry up to 500 passengers at a time. However, it was not always this way. And if you visit the St. Petersburg Museum of History near Tampa in Florida, you will understand that while Kitty Hawk in North Carolina deserves its rightful place in aviation history, St. Petersburg in Florida rightfully deserves its place in commercial aviation history.

Everyone knows that the Wright brothers were the first to really conquer the effects of gravity using a heavier-than-air craft in December 1903. Although their first attempt only lasted 12 seconds for a mere 120 feet, it did serve to solidify the notion that even heavier-than-air objects can be powered for controlled, sustained, and, most of all, manned flight. It would take more than a decade before the first commercial flight took place and started the revolution of commercial aviation in the world.

In the morning of New Year’s Day 1914, at about 10 AM, pilot Tony Janus took off from the bay of St. Petersburg on the Lark of Duluth, a Benoist XIV seaplane. With him was the very first paying passenger for a manned flight – the Mayor of St. Petersburg himself, Abraham C. Pheil. The flight crossed the bay from St. Petersburg and landed in Tampa after about 23 minutes in the air for an average speed of around a mile per minute. This marked the birth of commercial aviation between the two cities with Thomas W. Benoist and Percival Fansler joining to form the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line. The cost of airfare? Only $5. Mayor Pheil auctioned the very first commercial airline ticket for $400. In 3 months’ time, the airline lifted more than 1,200 passengers over the famed Tampa Bay. It closed soon after because of decreasing profitability.

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On the 70th Anniversary of the first commercial flight, the Florida Aviation Historical Society built a full-scale and fully operational replica of the Lark of Duluth. This remarkable piece of history is now at the St. Petersburg Museum of History. Coincidentally, the museum sits right in St. Petersburg Pier near the approximate spot where the birth of commercial aviation took place more than a century ago.

St. Petersburg can rightfully claim the birthplace of paid aviation. And people can visit the St. Petersburg Museum of History to relive the glory days of the Lark of Duluth.

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