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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Century of Airlines

Some day people will be crossing oceans on airliners like they do on steamships today.
—Thomas Benoist, creator of the Benoist XIV, the world's first airliner
What was impossible yesterday is an accomplishment today, while tomorrow heralds the unbelievable.
—Percival Elliot Fansler, organizer, co-founder, and manager of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line

Happy new year! January 1, 2014 doesn't just ring in a new year; it also marks 100 years since the first flight of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, which was the first scheduled commercial airline.

100 years ago. Author unknown.

It's popular to complain about the lack of food on airline flights these days, the cramped seats in a confined metal tube, and the flight attendants who are almost as surly and antagonistic as Verizon's customer service representatives, but a hundred years ago none of those had even been invented to complain about. (Yes, even the seat wasn't there to complain about: it was a wooden bench exposed to the wind and sea spray.)

The first airline flight was a quick, 23-minute hop across Tampa Bay. Nowadays that is too small a leg for an airline to even consider. In fact, it's not much longer than the final approach airliners use to land on Runway 36 at Tampa International!

However, 100 years ago this was an absolutely amazing improvement. Keep in mind that none of the three bridges across the bay had been built yet (the first, the Gandy Bridge, was still ten years away), and cars were extremely unreliable anyway. For travel of almost anything longer than walking distance, people took trains. In the days before rapid transit, the train ride to Tampa took 12 hours, and the only alternative, boats, took almost twice that.

In length and the location of its start and end points it is close to a flight from today's Albert Whitted Airport (KSPG) to Peter O. Knight Airport (KTPF). Knight is not far from the mouth of the Hillsborough River, which is where the first flight ended.

None of the airports on this chart existed at the time. For that matter, neither did aeronautical charts. Or SkyVector, which is where this comes from. The original flight plan stayed closer to the shoreline, making it 23 miles in total, 15 of which were along the shore.
Today, there is a historical marker by the St. Petersburg pier celebrating this event. I took a picture of it a few years ago while my wife and I were there for our honeymoon:

You can find the marker yourself here in Google Maps. It is not far from the location of Albert Whitted Airport, and the airport also calls itself the birthplace of the airlines.

Whether by coincidence or by design, the contract to create the airline was signed on December 17th, 1913. Does that date sound familiar? It should: it was exactly 10 years from the day the Wright brothers took their first flight.

While the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line only lasted four months (which was actually longer than it was intended to), and it made little money, it was an extremely useful proof of concept. Twenty years later, in 1934, another airline, National Airlines, would be founded in St. Petersburg. This time, it would be founded at an actual airport, as Albert Whitted was built in 1928.

Aviation History magazine has an excellent story about the events of the first day, the founding of the airline, and its dissolution four months later. It is quite long, but very informative. There are also some pictures at Airline Timetable Images.

Airline travel has come quite far since then. In fact, it has come so far it has almost ended up back where it began, but with shinier airplanes. Airline travel rose from a rickety, slow airboat to the glory days of Pan Am's luxuriously appointed and hosted 747s and the supersonic Concorde, and has gone back to its roots with lousy seats, no food, and no service. (That's why learning to fly yourself is such a good idea: travel on your schedule, no layovers, bring whatever you want to eat, you can bring as much luggage as the plane will carry and no one from the TSA will paw through it while groping you "for your safety", and if you want to bring gallons of water, there is no 3 oz. limit.)

Two of the best aviation books ever written were by former airline captains Ernest K. Gann and Bob Buck. Both of them tell amazing stories of the glory days of airlines and aviation, and the beauty of their writing is matched only by the beauty of their subject. Even if you never, ever want to learn to fly and just like to read, these books are two you absolutely, positively must read:


Clicking on the covers will take you to Amazon where you can see why they both have 5-star reviews. If you buy one or both while you're there, you'll help support Keyboard and Rudder at no cost to you! (Assuming you used the links above.)

But whether you buy them, check them out from the library, or borrow a friend's copy, read them. You'll thank me for it later, after you've soaked in page after outstandingly written page about the early days of major airlines. After you're done, you can look back and remember that it all started with this one little hop across Tampa Bay.

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