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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Monthly Archives: December 2017

The Man Who Gave Away His Birthday

Useless Information Podcast

When author Robert Louis Stevenson learned that young Vermont native Annie Ide hated her Christmas birthday, he decided to deed his own birthday to her. Listen to this episode to learn how she celebrated her new birthday and what happened after she died.

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World’s First Commercial Airline

The idea for the first heavier-than-air commercial airline came from the mind of Percival Elliott Fansler. Fansler was the sales manager for the Jacksonville branch of a tractor company when he came across an article describing a 1912 long-distance flight from Omaha to New Orleans. In the story, the airplane’s designer, Thomas W. Benoist, discussed the potential costs of carrying packages, mail, and passengers.

Thomas W. Benoist
This image of Thomas Wesley Benoist appears on the website airandspacemuseum.org.

Fansler noted that the numbers that Benoist was quoting were very competitive with the rates that railroads were charging and decided to contact Benoist to discuss the possibility of setting up a scheduled airline service. The two men got together and decided that there needed to be “a real commercial line from somewhere to somewhere else.”

And just where would that somewhere and somewhere else be? Well, Fansler had the answer. St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida. The two cities are fairly close to one another, but since St. Petersburg sits on a peninsula located between Tampa and the Gulf of Mexico, travel between the two locales in the early part of the twentieth century took quite some time. Your best bet would have been a 2-hour steamboat ride across the bay or a 5-hour trip by train. With automobiles still in their infancy, a trip by car on primitive roads was estimated to take nearly an entire day. But what if you could fly across the channel in far less time?

Together, these two aviation pioneers started the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line. The City of St. Petersburg agreed to contribute $40 per day for a period of three months as long as the airline flew two flights every weekday, whether they had a paid passenger or not. The contract with the city was signed on December 17, 1913, which just happened to be the 10th anniversary of the Wright brothers historic flight.

St. Petersburg Tampa Airboat Ad
This advertisement for the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line is on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

Benoist hired flight pioneer Tony Jannus to pilot the plane across the bay. An auction was then held for the first round-trip ticket and the winner was former St. Petersburg mayor Abram C. Pheil. He paid $400 (approximately $9,700 adjusted for inflation) for the privilege of becoming the first paid commercial flight passenger.

Word quickly spread of the planned flight and on the morning of January 1, 1914 a crowd of more than 3,000 people gathered on the beach in St. Petersburg – near the present location of the St. Petersburg Museum of History – and watched the inaugural flight of the newly formed airline.

The 21-mile (34-kilometer) flight took 23-minutes, but was not without its hiccups. First, the plane never lifted more than 50-feet (15.2 meters) above the water surface. More significantly, the engine chain slipped off of the propeller shaft and Tony Jannus had to set the plane down on the water. Both pilot and passenger rolled up their sleeves and fixed the engine so that they could complete the flight.

Tony Jannus and Albert Perry
Tony Jannus (left) made history on March 1, 1912 when he piloted Albert Berry to make the first parachute jump from an airplane ever. The parachute is in the conical shaped container under the plane.

The next day, Mae Peabody of Dubuque, Iowa, became the first woman to take a commercial flight. The cost for a one-way ticket was $5.00 ($122 today) and they sold out 16-weeks of flights almost immediately. It was so successful that a second plane was added, piloted by Tony Jannus’ brother Roger, and they extended some of the flights to Sarasota.

Mae Peabody and Tony Jannus
The first woman to buy a ticket on an airplane was Mae Peabody of Dubuque, Iowa. She can be seen here with pilot Tony Jannus.

The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line continued operation until May 5th. During the four months that the airline was in business, they made 172 flights carrying a total of 1,205 passengers. 86% of its scheduled flights were completed with an estimated 90% of the flights paid for. Service ended due to two factors: First, all of the snow bunnies headed back north for the summer and demand for flights dropped off significantly. And, since the city’s funding had expired, running the airline was no longer profitable. While the airline was dissolved, it did prove for the first time that airline service could be practical, reliable, and, most importantly, safe.

Nearly all of those involved met untimely deaths within a short period after this historic flight:

• Pilot Tony Jannus was killed on October 12, 1916 while training two Russian pilots and crashing into the Black Sea.

• His brother Roger was killed while flying an air patrol over France on September 4, 1918.

• Airplane designer Benoist died on June 14, 1917 when he stepped off of a streetcar in Sandusky, Ohio and struck his head against a utility pole.

• As for the historic plane that he designed, it didn’t last much longer. It was sold off and was destroyed after crashing into Pennsylvania’s Conneaut Lake.

• Passenger Pheil succumbed to cancer at age 55 on November 1, 1922.

• The man who thought up the idea of a commercial airline – Percival Fansler – practiced as an engineer for multiple companies before becoming the editor of a technical journal in New York City. He died in 1937 at 56-years of age.

Tony Jannus with Percy E. Fansler
Tony Jannus (left) with Percy E. Fansler just before their historic flight. Image from floridamemory.com
 

Pretended to be an Astronaut

On June 13, 1963, comedian Milton Berle was performing in a Houston, Texas nightclub when he decided to introduce astronaut Lt. Commander Jerry Clayton to his audience.

Perhaps you have never heard of an astronaut named Jerry Clayton. You are not alone. Neither had the four other astronauts or the NASA public affairs officer who were also seated in the audience that night. They quickly pointed out that Clayton was an imposter.

28-year-old Jerry G. Tees was arrested and charged with impersonating an officer for credit purposes, since he had obtained credit at a cafe. Bail was set at $5,000, which is approximately $40,000 today.
It turns out that Tees had been impersonating an astronaut for about a month and used it to his advantage. He was given food and drink, taken on fishing trips, and was offered cars, boats, and jobs. Over the previous ten years, he had impersonated other military officers, doctors, and businessmen.

He was quoted as saying, “I don’t know why I do it.” He added, “I just live in a dream world, I guess.”

Jerry G Tees - Astronaut Imposter
The real Jerry G Tees in handcuffs. This image appeared in the June 21, 1963 issue of the Star Tribune on page 47.
 

Man Sucked into Jet Engine

On May 14, 1956 Airman Third Class Fred E. Higinbotham was working with his fellow Air Force crew to refuel an F-86F Sabre jet on the island of Okinawa in Japan. Their goal was to move quickly and get the jet back in the air as soon as possible.

Higinbotham’s job was to secure a static line cable onto the nose gear of the plane as soon as it stopped. This line prevented the buildup of static electricity which could produce sparks and potentially ignite the fumes produced during the refueling process.

The Air Force had strict rules in place that prohibited anyone from getting too close to the intake duct of the fighter’s jet engine. Since this was their last servicing job for the day, the crew was anxious to get the job done.

As part of the post-flight procedure, the pilot advanced the throttle to 65% power, which he was supposed to do for a period of two minutes before shutting the engine down. Just as this was happening, Higinbotham felt the tug of the jet’s intake on his back, but continued to hold on to the static cable. He didn’t realize it at the time, but he had gotten too close to the engine’s intake.

Suddenly, his hat was pulled off of his head and Higginbotham instinctively turned around to grab it. The next thing you know, he was flying through the air and was sucked right into the jet engine. One would have expected Higginbotham to have been torn to shreds by the blades of the engine, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, he was stopped by the engine’s power take-off case cover, which projected outward from the blades in a cone shape. He used all his might to keep away from the whirling blades, which were just 6” (15 cm) from his head.

About thirty seconds after the pilot advanced the throttle, he felt a bump in the engine’s operation. He also spotted a mechanic frantically waving a rag in the air to get his attention. That worked. The pilot immediately cut power to the engine and the rotors began to slow down.

Just as Higginbotham started to back out of the engine, someone grabbed his legs and pulled him out of the engine completely. Amazingly, he still had the static cable in his hands, although it was wrapped twice around both his waist and legs. Later investigation determined that the cable had become fully extended when Higginbotham was sucked into the engine and that most likely saved his life.

Higginbotham’s injuries were minor: he had some cable burns and minor abrasions, but that’s it. He was released from the hospital and was back on the job the very next day.

Fred Higinbotham was sucked into a jet engine and survived.
Image of Fred Higinbotham from the February 3, 1957 publication of the Sunday magazine American Weekly on page 15.
 

Held on for Dear Life

When Lieutenant Lewis J. Connors was given the okay by the control tower operator in Chicago on April 30, 1938 to take off in the Army BY-9 monoplane that he was piloting, nothing initially seemed out of the ordinary.

That was until the air traffic controller noticed something attached to the outside of the plane. No, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He grabbed his binoculars. Yes, he wasn’t crazy. There was a man clinging to the outside of the plane as it approached nearly 1,000 feet (0.3 kilometer) in altitude. He frantically radioed Lieutenant Connors: “You’ve a passenger astride the fuselage. Please set down.”

Connors immediately circled the aircraft around and made a smooth landing. And that’s when Private First Class Frank H. Krebs let go of the airplane and fell to the ground, his fingers white from the firm grip that he had on the smooth fuselage.

Krebs summarized for the press what had happened, “There was a passenger on that ship headed for St. Louis. He had forgotten to sign required papers releasing the army from responsibility during the flight.

“I grabbed the releases and ran for the plane. I’d just stepped on the wing when the control tower gave Lieutenant Connors the signal to take off. I was too startled to jump until too late. My one chance was to slide onto the fuselage.

“I did that, and I’ll bet no cow puncher ever rode a bronco with more determination. Next time I hope that they’ve give me a saddle.”

Lieutenant Lewis J. Connors
This image of Lieutenant Lewis J. Connors appeared in the May 1, 1938 issue of the Chicago Tribune on page 3.