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Aviation in Florida

Daring pilots in bi-planes lowering rope ladders to even more daring lady acrobats on the touring cars below. The Tri-motor Ford aircraft made of corrugated aluminum and nicknamed the “Tin Goose.” Wing walkers and barn storming—this was part of early aviation.

The first Florida powered flight was made by Lincoln Beachey at the Orange County Fair in Orlando in 1910. He won a $1500 prize for staying in the air for 5 minutes. Two other planes competed but were not able to accomplish the feat. The first Florida flight school was founded in 1912. Glenn Curtiss, early aviation pioneer, established the school on Miami Beach.

Tampa and St. Petersburg were the first two cities in the world to have regular scheduled airline service. Pilot Tony Jannus made the trips because there were no bridges connecting the two cities at that time. The inaugural flight occurred in 1914 when the only plane of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line took off from downtown St. Petersburg with its first passenger. The plane flew at about 60 miles per hour. It took 22 minutes.

The trip featured fresh Florida air, breathtaking scenery, and just a little salt spray in the face. The flight also included a stop in the bay to repair a drive chain. The passenger on that historic first flight purchased his ticket at an auction for $400. The airline donated the proceeds of the auction to the City of St. Petersburg to purchase harbor lights.

Tony Jannus, the pilot, was a barnstormer, test pilot, and a romantic figure in aviation’s early days of daredevils and adventurers. Hugh Robinson, a famous pilot and engineer, helped design and build the aircraft used, considered the first commercial airplane.

The planes used in the flights were Benoist (ben-wah) Model 14s. They had room for the pilot and one passenger. The airboats were constructed of wood, fabric and wire. They generally traveled no more than 5-15 feet above the surface of the water.

The fare for scheduled flights was $5 each way. Jannus made two flights a day. Non-scheduled flights were available for $10-$20. Charters were available to Egmont Key, Pass-a-Grille, Clearwater and other nearby waterfront locations.

The Airboat Line operated flights for just over four months until shortly after the contract with St. Petersburg expired. Although they didn’t make money, they also didn’t lose money. This showed the world that air transportation was possible as a business. P. Elliot Fansler, known as the founder of the Airboat Line, said in a speech the day of the initial flight: “What was impossible yesterday is an accomplishment today, while tomorrow heralds the unbelievable.”

In the same year that commercial flight started in the Tampa Bay area, the first United States Naval Air Station was established in Pensacola. Through the years, aircraft of every description, including for a time, the Navy’s lighter-then-air blimps, could be seen rising from the runways.

On April 6, 1917, the United States Congress joined with other nations and declared war on Germany and entered World War I. For the first time, airplanes played a major role in a war. As the country looked for places to build flying schools to train pilots, Florida's weather conditions were ideal. Many airfields were built.

One of the first guided missiles was made with a radio controlled bomb-carrying pilotless airplane in 1919 at Carlstrom Field near Arcadia. Carlstrom Field was the principal Army Air Corps Flying School until 1923. At Carlstrom Field in 1920, Lt. A.G. Hamilton established a new world’s record parachute jump by descending 20,900 feet. The jump lasted 12 minutes.

In the twenties, Florida was booming. Eddie Rickenbacker established Florida Airways in 1926. Florida Airways had a fleet of 4 Ford-Stout monoplanes that could carry 8 passengers and 2 crewmembers. Fares were based on railroad fares plus $5 for each hour saved. It cost $30 to ride the train from Jacksonville to Tampa and $70 by plane because the plane saved 8 hours. Passenger service was established between Miami, Ft. Myers, Tampa, Jacksonville, Atlanta, and Macon.

The flight of a Fokker tri-motor F-7 from Key West to Havana in 1927 marked the birth of Pan American World Airways. Pan Am was soon connecting Miami with 32 Central and South American countries. At the same time, Eastern Airlines was flying daily between Miami, New York, Chicago, and intermediate cities.

During World War II, Carlstrom Field was reopened for Army flight training. Over 8000 cadets were trained there. Six hangers were set on a curved flight line. Pilots flying overhead today can easily see the circular site.

Today, Tampa International Airport is known as a world-class international airport. It has been voted “the best” or “one of the best’ domestic airports by business travelers. Miami International Airport is one of the busiest airports in the world. It is the nation’s gateway for international arrivals. Florida, a leader in aviation history, is now the leader in providing entry into the U.S.A. by air.


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