The Brief, Bright Aviation Career of St. Louis's Tom Benoist

Frederick W. Roos
The Boeing Company, Phantom Works, St. Louis, MO 63166

Copyright © 2005 by F.W. Roos
Published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc., with permission.

Article first presented by Frederick Roos, Senior Principal Technical Specialist,
M.C. S111-1240; Associate Fellow AIAA, at the
43d AIAA Aerospace Sciences Meeting
Reno, Nevada January 10 - 13, 2005

Introduction


Tom Benoist (pronounced "Ben-wah") (Fig. 1) was St. Louis' first aeronautical entrepreneur, one of the area's first industrialists, and arguably one of this country's true aviation pioneers. Benoist actively participated in all aspects of the new and expanding world of aviation: he designed, manufactured, and marketed airplanes and related hardware; he flew, both as an instructor and as an exhibition flier; he ran an aerial exhibition company and equipped and operated the world's first airline. And he accomplished all of this in the short span of less than ten years of aviation activity before his untimely demise.


Fig. 1. Thomas W. Benoist (1874-1917)

Thomas Wesley Benoist, born in Irondale, Missouri in 1874, was a successful automotive businessman in St. Louis when he was exposed to the brand-new world of aeronautics at the great Louisiana Purchase Exposition (popularly known as the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair). At the Fair, Benoist was a participant in the aeronautical activities by virtue of being among the sponsors of noted balloonist John Berry's unsuccessful attempt to win the $100,000 Grand Prize of the Aeronautical Contests with a novel helicopter-like lighter-than-air flying machine. In addition, he had the opportunity to view the grounds from a tethered spectator balloon at 1000 ft. altitude, and to witness glider demonstration flights (Fig. 2) made by William Avery, a protégé of Octave Chanute.

AEROSCO

While continuing to pursue his automotive career (including invention of an improved storage battery for automotive use), Benoist found himself increasingly absorbed with thoughts of aviation. By mid-1908, he and a partner had opened the Aeronautical Supply Company (known as AEROSCO), the first supply house in the country devoted to the sale of aeronautical parts and supplies. Initially, AEROSCO dealt only with the raw materials needed by aeronautical experimenters, e.g., bicycle wheels, motorcycle parts, piano wire, and various kinds and forms of wood. Before long, AEROSCO was marketing complete kits from which the purchaser could assemble one of the successful airplane types of the day, such as the Wright Flyer, Curtiss biplane, Bleriot-type monoplane, the Farman biplane, and so on. Also included in AEROSCO's catalog was an extensive list of contemporary aviation books.

 

To this point, Tom Benoist's involvement in aviation had been limited to business aspects. That changed on September 18, 1910 at Kinloch Field in St. Louis, when Benoist made his first flight as a pilot, flying a Curtiss-type biplane (Fig. 3) he had purchased from its builder, Howard Gill. Benoist was soon flying exhibitions around the Midwest and south with his Gill-Curtiss. Ironically, an injury sustained during one of these exhibitions kept him from scheduled participation in a major international aviation meet (only the second such meet in the U.S.) in mid-October. Benoist recovered quickly, however, and on December 22, 1910 became the first St. Louisan to be granted a pilot's license by the Aero Club of America.

Early in 1911, Benoist established facilities for a flying school (AEROSCO Flying School, later Benoist School of Aviation) at Kinloch Field, and began instructing students in March. The widespread reputation established by the AEROSCO supply house enabled the school to attract students from all around the country. At this same time, after having bought out his partner in AEROSCO, Benoist relocated his supply company to a larger facility in suburban St. Louis and renamed it Benoist Aircraft Company to reflect the growing emphasis of the concern on manufacturing and marketing airplanes of its own design.


Fig. 2. William Avery about to launch Chanute glider demonstration at 1904 St. Louis World's Fair


Fig. 3. Benoist making his first flight, in Gill-Curtiss, Kinloch Field, September 18, 1910

The first such design was Benoist's own version of the Gill-Curtiss biplane he'd been flying. Known simply as the Benoist Biplane, it was typical of the many Curtiss biplane copies being built and flown throughout the country at the time. The pilot and passenger sat on the leading edge of the lower wing, with the engine and pusher propeller located behind them; the elevator was supported ahead of the wings, while vertical and horizontal tail surfaces were supported aft of the wings. Curtiss-type "floating" ailerons were located between the wing planes, extending beyond their tips. Benoist employed this airplane type for student instruction and for exhibition flying throughout 1911.

Both the school and the manufacturing operation were highly successful, and Benoist airplanes and pilots were soon appearing around the country.

Benoist suffered a major blow when, on October 20, 1911, the Benoist Aircraft Company facility burned to the ground. The uninsured loss included five complete airplanes, tools, specialized machinery, and all files. Benoist was able to obtain comparable factory space just a few blocks away, and quickly set about re-establishing Benoist Aircraft operations. Despite this setback, Benoist was able to complete design and construction of a new biplane before 1911 came to a close.  

Fig. 4. Three-view of Type XII School Plane ("Headless")

Fig. 5 Benoist Type XII "Headless", or School Plane

Benoist's First Original Airplane: the Type XII

Benoist's new biplane, identified as the Type XII (for 1912, its intended year of introduction), was his company's first original design. Co-designed with Antony Jannus (who had joined Benoist in November, 1911 and would soon become Benoist's chief pilot), the Type XII was a very rugged dual-control biplane of conventional "pusher" arrangement, but with all rudder and elevator surfaces at the rear of the machine (Figs. 4, 5). In the terminology of the time, this was known as a "headless" configuration. A number of novel features were incorporated into the Type XII to facilitate its shipment and setup for exhibition flying, and also to enable it to effectively absorb rough treatment in the course of instructional use. Recognizing the impact on the airframe of rough landings, Benoist designed a simple landing gear that would absorb and cushion loads while transmitting strain to the heavy engine supports (and away from the wings). Key to the system was the mounting of landing wheels on stub axles supported by semi-elliptical steel springs rather than rubber bungee shock absorbers. To protect tail surfaces from landing damage, skids were extended rearward from the main landing gear to a point aft of the airplane CG. Mindful of the needs of exhibition work, Benoist developed wings made up of completely interchangeable sections to facilitate assembly, disassembly, crating and shipping. The control surfaces of the Type XII, including the between-plane ailerons, were another unique development. Constructed with spring steel ribs, the surfaces were "warped" rather than deflected on hinges. This approach reportedly improved control effectiveness while requiring less control pressure. Power for the machine was provided by a six-cylinder, two-cycle, 75 hp Roberts engine (then widely used as a marine powerplant).

With Tony Jannus piloting, a Benoist Type XII participated in a headline-gathering event on February 29, 1912, when Capt. Bert Berry (son of the balloonist John Berry) made the first-ever parachute drop from an airplane in flight, over Jefferson Barracks in suburban St. Louis (Figs. 6, 7). The prospect of delivering troops into battle by parachute from airplanes soon led to evolution of the Type XII into a tractor configuration (engine and propeller in front), the first in the U.S. (Fig. 8). This arrangement would put the soldier astride the slender fuselage, from which it was a far simpler matter to drop than was climbing over structure to drop from the landing gear of the Headless Type XII! Employing the same landing gear and essentially the same wings as the Type XII Headless, the new tractor version known as the Type XII Military Plane, first flown at Kinlock Field in March, 1912.

Fig. 6. Type XII Headless w/conical parachute container Fig. 7. Berry collapsing parachute after drop


Fig. 8. Benoist Type XII (Tractor) Military Plane, with slender fuselage

A further-improved version of the Type XII tractor appeared in June, 1912. The slender fuselage of the Military Plane was deepened and sides were added, so that the pilot and passenger seats and the controls were enclosed to the waist. Because improved streamlining resulted from these changes, range and other performance aspects of the Type XII were enhanced, and this version became known as the Type XII Cross Country Plane, the definitive version of the type. Under the banner of the recently formed Benoist Aerial Exhibition Company, the Type XII Cross Country Plane saw widespread use in aerial demonstrations throughout the Midwestern U.S. (Fig. 9).

 


Fig. 9. Type XII Cross Country Plane hopping rides at aerial exhibition

Benoist's Seaplanes

By the summer of 1912, Benoist had become taken with the notion of flying from water (pioneered in this country by Glenn Curtiss in 1911). Fitting a single broad float to the undercarriage of a Type XII Cross Country Plane, Benoist soon had his floatplane flying from several rivers and lakes in the St. Louis area. Entered in a Hydro Flying Meet at Chicago in September, Benoist's floatplane, piloted by Tony Jannus, won both speed and endurance competitions, taking second place overall. Encouraged by this success, Benoist and Jannus immediately began planning a long-distance water flight that had been attempted and abandoned by a Curtiss floatplane in 1911. Once satisfactory financing had been lined up, including contracts for flying exhibitions at many cities along the route, Jannus started out on November 6, 1912 from Omaha, Nebraska. He flew the Type XII floatplane along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers (Fig. 10), reaching New Orleans on December 16. An arrival ceremony and parade through the city celebrated the much-publicized, world-record, 1,973-mile overwater flight. Forty-two aerial exhibitions during the trip had exposed many thousands of Americans to the marvel of the airplane. And the trip had been profitable, too - after sale of the airplane in New Orleans, the Benoist concern had netted $17,500 from the venture.


Fig. 10. Loading case of Falstaff Beer, for delivery to New Orleans mayor, onto Type XII floatplane during Missouri-Mississippi River flight

 

Meanwhile, Benoist was very busy at the factory developing a different type of water-based aircraft with the assistance of St. Louisan Hugh Robinson, whom Benoist had hired away from his rival, Glenn Curtiss. The resulting Type XIII flying boat married the wings, tail, and engine of the Type XII to a boat-hull type fuselage. For on-water stability and maneuverability, the Roberts engine was buried in the hull, driving the pusher propeller via a roller chain. The Type XII's "floating" ailerons were retained. The new Type XIII first flew in December 1912. After some modifications to improve performance, including the first installation of hinged trailing-edge ailerons on a Benoist airplane, the Type XIII Lake Cruiser (Fig. 11) was widely demonstrated during the summer of 1913.


Fig. 11. Type XIII Lake Cruiser in final form


Fig. 12. Three-view of Type XIV Flying Boat

 

The World's First Airline

At this same time, Benoist and Percival E. Fansler, a Florida-based sales representative, began discussing the possibility of using Benoist flying boats to operate an airline across Tampa Bay between the Florida cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa. Fansler succeeded in arranging subsidy support for the proposed line while Benoist produced an improved flying boat, the somewhat larger Type XIV (Fig. 12).

Service over the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, the first regularly scheduled airline service in the world, was inaugurated amidst much fanfare on January 1, 1914 (Figs. 13, 14). Tony Jannus and his brother Roger were pilots for the line, as well as for the associated Benoist School of Aviation that had been established at St. Petersburg (with a Type XIII for a training aircraft). Over the ensuing three months, the airline employed two Type XIV boats to operate two daily round trips across Tampa Bay, charging passengers $5 for a one-way trip. By March 31, the end of the contracted operating period, the airline had carried 1,204 passengers without a serious mishap; only four days had been lost to mechanical difficulties. The operation proved self-supporting through most of the three months of service. Declining tourist business led to the close of operations by late April, at which time the two flying boats were sold to private parties. Type XIV flying boats made frequent exhibition appearances around the country in 1914 and 1915, particularly at lakeshore resort areas such as Cedar Point on Lake Erie (Fig. 15).

 
Fig. 13. Benoist boat starting on first airline run


Fig. 14. Type XIV boat crossing Tampa Bay


Fig. 15. Tony Jannus taxiing Benoist Type XIV through surf at Cedar Point, Ohio in 1914


Fig. 16. Twin-engine Type XV Flying Boat in St. Louis Car shops (RR car in back)

 

Back in St. Louis, Benoist was already hard at work on another project. Since early 1913, Benoist and Jannus had been exploring the prospect of attempting a transatlantic flight, using an improved Benoist flying boat. The concept was given added stimulus in early 1914, when the London Daily Mail offered a $50,000 prize for the first transatlantic flight completed within 72 hours. Design and construction of a new, larger flying boat proceeded during 1914 (despite the departure of Tony Jannus over differences with Benoist), using the shop facilities of the St. Louis (Railway) Car Company (Fig. 16). First flying late in 1915, the Benoist Type XV (Fig. 17) was a biplane flying boat of 65-ft span, powered by two 100-hp Roberts direct-drive pusher engines, and capable of carrying as many as six people with an endurance of up to 40 hours. The advent of the First World War prevented any attempt at a transatlantic flight; instead, Benoist and St. Louis Car proposed to manufacture as many as 5,000 modified Type XV boats for the British for use as antisubmarine patrol aircraft, but the British were already committed to the earlier, more thoroughly tested Curtiss flying boats.

The End

Continuing financial problems, resulting from inadequate financing compounded by the inability to obtain government orders in W.W. I, plagued Benoist's progress, eventually forcing Benoist to relocate, first to Chicago (in January 1915) and then to Sandusky, Ohio, where his company affiliated with the Roberts Motor Company, whose engines Benoist had always favored. During this period, despite the difficulties and pressures, aircraft development continued, albeit at a retarded pace. Single-engine flying boat evolution led to the Type 16 of 1916 (Fig. 18), which featured a 100 hp Roberts engine with pusher propeller mounted between the wing planes (not in the hull), and a canted, formed steel tail boom. Several were built for, and delivered to, the Staten Island School of Aeronautics. A related landplane was the Type 17 "Steel Clad" Cross Country biplane (Fig. 19), also shown in 1916, which featured fuselage and tail surfaces made entirely of sheet steel. The Type 17 was also powered by the 100 hp Roberts.

Tragically, Tom Benoist was fatally injured on June 14, 1917, when he struck his head against a telephone pole while stepping off a streetcar at the Roberts factory in Sandusky, Ohio, thus bringing to a premature conclusion a brief but brilliant aeronautical career. Continuing business difficulties led to the closing of both the Benoist and Roberts companies by early 1918. Total production by the Benoist Aircraft Company had amounted to slightly more than 100 airplanes.

Postscript

Only two examples of Benoist airplanes are known to exist today. An original Benoist Type XII Cross Country Plane that was built, bought, flown, and crashed by the Korn brothers of Ohio, has been restored and put on display at the National Air & Space Museum's Garber Restoration Facility in Silver Hill, Maryland (Fig. 20). An accurate replica of a Benoist Type XIV flying boat was built and flown by the Florida Aviation Historical Society in 1984 to mark the 70th anniversary of the historic St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line operations (Fig. 21). This replica currently resides in the St. Petersburg Historical and Flight One Museum on the St. Petersburg waterfront.


Fig. 17. Type XV Flying Boat on test flight over Mississippi River, late 1915


Fig. 18. Type 16 boat with canted tail boom, for Staten Island School of Aeronautics

 


Fig. 19. Type 17 "Steel Clad" Cross Country Plane of 1917

Fig . 20. Restored Korn Brothers' Type XII Cross Country at NASM Garber Facility


Fig. 21. Replica Benoist Type XIV built and flown by Florida Aviation Historical Society in 1984

 

Copyright © 2005 by F.W. Roos
Published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc., with permission.

Article first presented by Frederick Roos, Senior Principal Technical Specialist,
M.C. S111-1240; Associate Fellow AIAA, at the
43d AIAA Aerospace Sciences Meeting
Reno, Nevada January 10 - 13, 2005


Sources

1. Glines, C.V., "World's First Winged Airline," Aviation History, March 1997.
2. Horgan, James J., City of Flight - The History of Aviation in St. Louis, Gerald, MO, Patrice Press, 1984, pp. 275-288.
3. Kidd, Glenn H., "Thomas W. Benoist & His Type XII Airplanes," Aeronautical History Society of St. Louis Newsletter, November-December 1978.
4. Kidd, Glenn H., "Thomas W. Benoist & His Early Flying Boats," Aeronautical History Society of St. Louis Newsletter, January 1979.
5. Miller, Roger L., "The Korn Brothers of Ohio: Early Aviators," American Aviation Historical Society Journal, 42, 4, Winter 1997, pp. 296-301.
6. Provenzo, Eugene F., Jr., "Thomas W. Benoist - Early Pioneer St. Louis Aviator (1874-1917)," Missouri Historical Society Bulletin, XXXI, 2, January 1975, pp. 91-104.
7. Reilly, Thomas, "Benoist - The Forgotten Man," American Aviation Historical Society Journal, 43, 4, Winter 1998, pp. 279-281.
8. White, Gay B., The World's First Airline: the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, 2nd ed., Largo, FL, Florida Aviation Historical Society, 1984.
9. Woodcock, Reginald D., Benoist, published by author, 1971.