A monument commemorating the world’s first commercial airline is just weeks away from completion and installation at the St. Pete Pier.
City Council members Thursday approved the final design of the Benoist Monument, a privately funded, full-size replica of the plane flown by pilot Tony Jannus on Jan. 1, 1914 from St. Petersburg to Tampa. St. Petersburg’s Mayor, Abe Pheil, was the first passenger in that historic flight.
The monument will be located in a plaza on the south side of the new Pier, at the exact departure spot for the original Benoist flight, said Chris Ballestra, St. Petersburg’s director of enterprise facilities.
“I think will be pretty breathtaking because it will be full size. You’ll be able to see it from many different angles across the harbor and at the Pier. It will be hopefully a real icon to the city of St. Petersburg skyline.”
See a gallery of Benoist Monument images below.
That 1914 flight, by the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, marked the launch of global commercial aviation, and St. Petersburg is the birthplace of the industry, said Will Michaels, president of Flight 2014 Inc., a nonprofit organization backing the project.
“This was an event where some very creative and imaginative people took a new science of aviation and moved it from an experimental stage and came up with the idea of organizing it into a major business. It not only was an acceleration and creativeness of the people involved … but this is also a story about our city, in terms of it coming together to embrace this new technology, this novel science that was just breaking at that time,” Michaels said.
Jannus’ airline is responsible for many aviation industry firsts, Michaels said, including the first time pilots were licensed, the first time there was federal regulation of the industry and the first time safety became a priority in air flight.
“It’s a great St. Pete story,” said City Council Chair Ed Montanari, who is an airline pilot.
“A lot of people don’t know where the airline business started, including people in the industry. When I tell them it started in St. Petersburg and the mayor of St. Petersburg was the first passenger, they are amazed,” Montanari said.
The monument has been funded privately by several airlines and airports, the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society, local businesses, and citizens, including Betsy Pheil, granddaughter of the former mayor. The William & Katherine McMannis Charitable Trust is the presenting sponsor.
Flight 2014 has raised about $1.25 million for the project, including in-kind donations from Phil Graham Landscape Architecture, Karins Engineering and Hennessy Construction, Michaels said.
The monument is being sculpted at MGA Sculpture Studio in St. Petersburg, and during the online City Council meeting, Mark Aeling, studio owner, walked through his shop, giving council members a real-time look at work underway on the project.
Work on the plaza is about half completed, Ballestra said. The sculpture is expected to be installed in July.
An opening celebration for the Pier, originally scheduled for the end of May, was postponed until further notice due to the Covid-19 pandemic.