A Valliant Effort


“It’s a No Go”

A Valliant Effort

By, JRHafer, aviation writer

Despite a 2 and a half year race against the clock and starting from absolute scratch Kermit Weeks and his magnificent world class professional aircraft staff at Fantasy of Flight, announced late Sunday evening December, when it came down to the wire; It is a “No Go” for the reproduction flight of the Benoist.

But what a Valliant effort it has been. What a work of art the reproduction is. And you can bet the Benoist XIV reproduction that Kermit Weeks has built Will most definitely will fly soon. Kermit Weeks will not rest until it does, he is just that way! You can bet on that! They will work it out. Just not in time for New Years Day. Kermit said, “Time just ran out on us”.

Kermit’s Benoist XIV reproduction will still be in St. Petersburg, New Years day for Display but not to fly.

In late 2009 Kermit Weeks stepped up to the plate when others wondered what best to do for the 100th Anniversary of the first scheduled airline from St. Petersburg to Tampa Bay Florida on new years day 2014. Mr. Weeks never does anything that isn’t “First Rate” or “Top Shelf”. Kermit suggested that he would build and fly himself, a full scale reproduction Beniost XIV Just like the original in 1914.

Whether or not the world famous aircraft collector and Aviator Kermit Weeks, actually understood the massive undertaking he was proposing to undertake in retrospect is a conundrum. There were no plans of the airplane itself nor the Roberts engine that powered the craft. Kermit wanted to reproduce (an exact copy as original as possible, not a replica which to him meant a close copy, using other parts if needed etc.) Therefore it became a matter of strict principle for Kermit Weeks, for the Benoist to be as similar as possible, thereby he then could make it feasible for his world famous authentic flyable collection.

Kermit with Ken Kellett the wood working wizard and Andy Salter the Engine builder, Rick, Paul and many more than I can’t name went here and there, Museums, archives and even to the Smithsonian trying to find plans and schematics and diagrams of the Benoist and the Roberts engine, to no avail. They ended up having to reverse engineer the aircraft and the Engine from scratch.

The Benoist started to take on a life of its own over two years ago and has become a part of the wood working shop tour at Fantasy of Flight and on Kermit’s blog and on his Facebook almost 5000 followers have watched this aircraft take shape from pieces of spruce in Ken Kellett’s woodshop and many have been a part of the building of this flying boat.  The hull, ribs, Fuselage, planking, all have been painstakingly handcrafted at Fantasy of Flight aircraft woodshop.

There have been yards of muslin stretched taut over her Sitka spruce and Kermit coated Her with airplane dope himself.

The Roberts engine was built from reverse engineering by a borrowed engine and a world class engine firm in Cleveland, Ohio and delivered last week, two beautiful and functioning reproduction of the six cylinder Roberts water cooled engine. Where in was immediately installed into the Beniost.

Saturday December 28th was the first time, floated and taxied in the water with absolute success, with one exception. The Benoist would not rise on the step which is the first to getting the flying boat from Boat to Flying.

The boat weighs out at slightly over 2000 lbs and has a weight wing ratio of 4.4 and the Roberts engine output is approximately 105 horsepower.

Will all the things they had to figure out and guess at, it is amazing that the reproduction was so “Right on” as it is. One person made the comment “It is absolutely a work of art” and another onlooker was heard to say: “Wow, that is a magnificent airplane, listen how she sounds, like being back in 1914!” and yet another all she could do is yell though her tears of joy; “Wooooohoooo, wow, yahooooo!!!”

Kermit Weeks, what a Valliant effort…

Kermit Weeks 11-9

History Lesson

 Thanks to Waveney Ann Moore of Tampa Bay Times, who authored most of the content we used for the context of the clarification of this lesson. We ever so grateful.

On January 1st 2014 New years day 100 years ago to the day, in 1914 a famous pilot named Tony Jannus made a historic round-trip flight between St. Petersburg and Tampa. It was planned the reproduction Benoist would take off from St. Petersburg’s North Yacht Basin on New Year’s morning at precisely the same time as the original flight did, 10am and land in Tampa, at what is now the seaplane basin at the Peter O. Knight Airport.

Thronging the St. Petersburg waterfront, 3,000 spectators showed up to catch a glimpse of Jannus’ pioneer flight. “It was a novelty,” said Dr. Warren J. Brown, a former FAA flight surgeon and author of the book, The World’s First Scheduled Airline. “Most people in St. Petersburg had not seen an airplane before. It was like watching spacemen come into the St. Petersburg Pier.”

The Jan. 1, 1914, flight launched the short-lived, but groundbreaking St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line recognized as the world’s first commercial airline. In those days, travel by train between St. Petersburg and Tampa could take from five to 12 hours. Automobile took all day, going around Oldsmar. Steam ship took two hours. “Fast passenger and express service,” an advertisement for the new airline bragged.

Tony Jannus: He has been called “the gentleman adventurer.” A few years ago, Florida honored him with a Great Floridian Award, placing him in the company of Juan Ponce de Leon, Walt Disney, Lilly Pulitzer, Tony Dungy and General Norman Schwarzkopf.

Tony Jannus was a test pilot who held the first federal airline license, he set an over-water record, flying a Benoist airboat 1,900 miles from Omaha to New Orleans over the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. He was 24 when he made his historic flight across Tampa Bay.

The idea of an airline had been Percival E. Fansler’s. The Jacksonville-based electrical engineer couldn’t get backing in either Jacksonville or Tampa for the venture, but got lucky in St. Petersburg, said Brown, a former president of the Florida Aviation Historical Society.

Fansler also got Tom Benoist to supply the airboats and Jannus as the pilot. With financial support from Lew Brown, publisher of the Evening Independent, Perry Snell, George Gandy and other businessmen, the airline was launched.

Jannus’ inaugural flight to Tampa, with former St. Petersburg Mayor Abe Pheil as his passenger, took 23 minutes. The return took 20.

For the next three months, the airline carried 1,205 passengers and thousands of pounds of cargo. The fare was $5, but the daily schedule, not including Sundays, was suspended with the end of tourist season, Will Michaels said in his book, The Making of St. Petersburg. On May 5, 1914, the airline was shut down.

Jannus died two years later while training Russian pilots over the Black Sea near the seaport city of Sevastopol Ukraine on the Crimean peninsula.

Kermit Weeks and Jannus share a kindred spirit as they both believe in infinite possibilities and the channeling of other plains of existence though the metaphysical.

It was almost four years ago that he promised a gathering of fellow aviation enthusiasts that he would fund, build and fly an authentic version of the Jannus plane to promote the centennial of the world’s first scheduled airline flight.

His obsession for authentic details meant commissioning a built-from-scratch six-cylinder, two-stroke, 300-pound, 478-cubic inch engine. “I’m in a very fortunate situation to do things right,” Weeks, 60, told a captivated audience at the St. Petersburg Museum of History earlier this month.

“The biggest challenge was finding the material they had back then,” said Steve Litten, president of Vintage Auto Rebuilds, the Chardon, Ohio, firm charged with building the engine through reverse engineering, copying from one of only six in the world.

A few weeks ago, fire extinguisher at the ready and ear plugs issued, Litten fired up the 21st century Roberts engine at Fantasy of Flight.

“The engine is very temperamental,” he warned. “It’s going to be a bit of a handful.”

Weeks, who reveled in its sound, didn’t seem concerned. An airplane buff at 8, he learned to fly as a teenager. At 20, he began competing in aerobatics and has won two U.S. championships.

In 1985, he opened Weeks Air Museum in Miami, quickly collecting more planes than could fit in the leased facility. Fantasy of Flight, on over 200 acres he owns in Polk City, opened in 1995 and boasts more than 140 vintage and rare aircraft, many restored to flying condition.

Four years ago, he had predicted that the Benoist project would take two years and cost more than $300,000. But he has yet to total what he has spent so far, including for staff time on the project.

“The airplane materials were not that expensive,” he said. “The engine was the big thing. That was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The Jannus society recently gave Weeks an award, praising him for his commitment.

“He has got a very tremendous investment in this,” said Michaels, co-chair of the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society and president of Flight 2014 Inc., the nonprofit group that is organizing the centennial.

“In many ways, to me, he represents the spirit of Tony Jannus. … It’s not just the plane, it’s him.”

The Benoist re-creation will be trucked from Fantasy of Flight to St. Petersburg in several loads.

But with the deadline nearing, Weeks has other concerns as he and his staff work feverishly to complete the aircraft so he can test fly it and receive an airworthiness certificate from the FAA.

(Other uncertainties on the list became a Moot point after it wouldn’t fly. JRH )

“We’re so on edge about whether we are going to make it or not,” said Weeks, who had hoped to test fly the plane by summer.

“I think we all bit off more than we could chew,” he said late last week.

The passenger for the re-enactment is also uncertain.

“First of all, the airplane has to fly safely with me,” he said.

Abe Phiel’s great-grand-daughter has been suggested as a passenger. (Moot)

“I have never talked to her,” he said. “She may take one look at this noisy beast and say, ‘No way in heck I’m going to go in that thing.’ ” (Moot)

The contingency plan calls for Eddie Hoffman, (the son of the man who built the Benoist replica that hangs from the ceiling at the St. Petersburg Museum of History), to fly an amphibious flying boat called a Hoffman X-4 mullet skiff. It will be an encore for the aircraft, which was flown in 2000 to commemorate the 86th anniversary of Jannus’ flight. Kermit Weeks will settle for displaying the airboat he has built so meticulously.

Waveney Ann Moore
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com 

A Valliant Effort



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