Born in Washington D.C. in 1889, Tony Jannus’ passion and involvement with the fledgling aviation industry, helped create the world’s first commercial airline. Just ten years after the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk, Tony Jannus’ the world’s first scheduled commercial airline on January 1, 1914 set a trend that is the foundation of today’s multibillion-dollar industry.
Distinguished he may be, yet the striking Tony Jannus desired more than sophistication in his younger years. Once known as a fearless daredevil and admirer of women, running from angry fathers with pointed shotguns and dating movie stars, Jannus took risks in love and war.
Beginning in College Park, Maryland, in 1910, with little to no formal aeronautical training, Jannus began testing airborne machine guns and parachutes, setting altitude records and becoming the first pilot to ever carry a passenger. Known for his charisma, popularity and bravery, Jannus was once described as a well-bred, lovable gentleman. He once dressed as Santa Claus and parachuted toys out of a plane for children in 1914.
In a desperate attempt to tend to repairs while flying, Jannus, nicknamed, “the bird-man” once flew an airboat with a broken, dangling wing after crashing into a choppy sea. Jannus even won a $10,000, four-cylinder-motor air race from St. Louis to Omaha with only three cylinders – he was forced to land, repaired the damage with a wooden plug acting as a piston and took off again.
In December 1912, Jannus was forced down while in flight due to piercing stomach pains. With no doctor around, the audacious pilot guzzled a case of beer, which was meant for the mayor, in order to ease the pain. It took one more case of beer that he purchased himself to numb the agony and fly home. The same year Jannus had his appendix removed.
The Wigwam Hotel in St. Petersburg, Fla., now the Edgepark Hotel, became home to Jannus. It didn’t take long for him to become the center of attention, attending parties and meeting many women. “Tony Jannus was as handsome as a picture and so refined. He was so thoughtful of others and had such a winning personality that he was always sought after by the girls. [He] was a most interesting conversationalist,” Wigwam proprietor, Eleanor C. Reed once stated. Before his death, some young ladies even claimed to be engaged to the flying rebel, blushing when his name was spoken.
On New Year’s Day in 1914, a single-engine biplane lifted off the water near St. Petersburg and headed northeast under the bright Florida sun across Tampa Bay. Twenty-three minutes and 21 miles later, Tony Jannus and his first passenger, Mayor Abe Pheil of St. Petersburg, landed the Benoist “flying boat” in Tampa. It was the world’s first scheduled commercial flight which Jannus called the “Airboat Line.” One way fare was $5.00 and every seat was a window seat.
Also in 1914 Jannus and his brother, Roger Jannus, furthered their passion for aviation and opened their own firm, “Jannus Brothers, Aviation”. It consisted of pilots, airplane design and construction or “anything air-propelled specializing in flying boats and airplanes.” Jannus spoke of death as wildly as he spoke of life, once promising that in due time he would “fall” (crash) and when he did he would write a book about it while recovering. The book would be written from a flier to fliers, he said.
On October 12, 1916, Tony Jannus, along with two Russian passengers, were killed over the Black Sea due to engine trouble in their Curtiss K boat. The passengers’ bodies were strapped in, thus recovered while Jannus’ body remains lost at sea.
Tony Jannus’ legacy is now evident in the awards that bear his name. In 1964, the Tampa and St. Petersburg Chambers of Commerce established the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society in honor of Tony Jannus.
June 2010 issue of “Airways, A Global Review of Commercial Aviation”, containing an excellent article about “The World’s First Airline“.