Tony Jannus, a longtime air pioneer, was the pilot of the world’s first airline commercial flight, which flew from downtown St. Petersburg to the mouth of the Hillsborough River near downtown Tampa. Having not exceeded an altitude of fifty feet over the course of the twenty-three minute flight, the Model XIV Benoist airboat also misfired over the Bay, forcing Jannus to land in the water, make adjustments, and take off again from the middle of Tampa Bay. Upon entering the mouth of the river, Jannus and his passenger, Abram Peil, himself a former mayor of St. Pete, were swarmed by onlookers.
Elliott Fansler, creator of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat-Line, would presage a fascination by St. Pete locals and international airmen alike in his pre-flight speech when he said, “What was impossible yesterday is an accomplishment today, while tomorrow heralds the unbelievable."
By fall of 1928, a mere fourteen years after this prodigal flight, Albert Whitted Airport would begin construction and open to the public the following summer.
Named after Lieutenant James Albert Whitted, who was commissioned as part of the first 250 naval aviators to serve in the armed forces in 1917 and St. Petersburg native, the airport would initially serve as a basis of commercial flights, Coast Guard operations during World War II, and today is primarily dedicated to private and chartered air services.
Whitted himself was born and raised in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area before becoming one of the first pilots officially commissioned by the United States military. Upon returning from World War I, Whitted introduced recreational flight to the people of St. Pete, often performing wild and dangerous maneuvers in the skies above downtown. He specially designed and engineered two of his own planes that, when not executing aerial loops and twists, acted as commercial aircraft – free of charge. One of these, named the “Falcon,” would be the final resting place of Whitted and four passengers in August of 1923, due to a fatal plane crash off of Pensacola.
St. Pete’s serviced airport, Cook-Springstead tracks, was renamed Albert Whitted Airport in 1928 when reconstruction began. Today the airport is among the most integral parts of the St. Pete economy, bringing in approximately $33 million in 2012. It employs more than 350 people and hosts its own restaurant overlooking the runway on the second floor of its small but functional terminal. On the south side of the airport is the Coast Guard station which used to be its own St. Pete airbase where its numerous search and rescue operations were conducted. By the mid-1970’s however, the Coast Guard moved its airbase to the Clearwater-St. Petersburg Airport due to the increase in large four-engine aircraft requiring a larger runway than was available to Albert Whitted.