‘First Flight’ monument installed at the St. Pete Pier

It’s been nearly 107 years since pilot Tony Jannus flew a wood and canvas “airboat” across the bay from St. Petersburg to Tampa in 23 minutes. January 1, 1914 was historically significant not just for our area but for the world as we know it: Because Jannus’ floating biplane carried a paying passenger, who’d paid in advance, the 21-minute flight marked the beginning of commercial aviation.

Sculptor Mark Aeling’s full-sized stainless steel replica of the Benoist airboat, with a 40-foot wingspan and fitted out with bronze statues of pilot Jannus and his first passenger, former St. Pete mayor A.B. Pheil, was installed Tuesday morning at the St. Pete Pier. The 16,000-pound monument rests just a stone’s throw from the very spot where the original craft was launched, down an oiled ramp into the waters of Tampa Bay. It will be officially dedicated at a ceremony Feb. 6.

Installation, in three parts, began at 7 a.m., with Aeling and members of his MGA Sculpture Studio team bolting each piece into place as it was lowered by crane off a flatbed trailer.

In this Catalyst interview, the sculptor discusses the creation of the aviation monument in detail:


St. Pete city council member Ed Montanari was among the small crowd gathered to watch the three-part installation in the early-morning hours. Montanari, an aviation buff and commercial airline pilot, is a member of Flight 2014, the nonprofit group organized to celebrate the historical milestone, and to raise funds for the statue.

“I was on the first pier task force back in 2009,” he said. “We always set aside this little area to put a First Flight monument. We weren’t exactly sure what it would look like, bit we knew we wanted to carve out this area for it.

“A lot of people are going to come out to the pier, and the not going to have any clue about the history that happened here. Until they see the airplane – and then they’re going to go, ‘What’s that doing here?”

READ MORE: The full story of Tony Jannus and the birth of commercial aviation.

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Keara McGraw