AIN Blog: The Real First Scheduled Air Passenger Service

 - May 18, 2012, 4:25 PM
The airship Pasadena
Augustus Roy Knabenshue built the airship Pasadena in 1912. (Photo: Pasadena Museum of History)

The first scheduled commercial airline service was operated on Jan. 1, 1914, with a flight between St. Petersburg and Tampa, Fla., in a Benoist biplane flying boat.

That’s what Wikipedia would have us believe. And the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum agrees. There’s even a plaque marking the event in St. Petersburg.

Now that’s all well and good, but as 19th-century American humorist Charles Farrar Brown put it, “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.” And so it is with that 23-minute flight by the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line 98 years ago.

Quite a few years back, I was researching for a story about a lesser known pioneer of aviation named Augustus Roy Knabenshue, a quiet-spoken son of Ohio who made his first aerial excursion quite by accident when the owner of a dirigible discovered he was too heavy to go aloft at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. He turned the dirigible over to his young assistant, the slightly built Knabenshue, saying “Son, I guess you are elected.”

Knabenshue’s career as an aeronaut was well launched and in 1912 he built the Pasadena, a grand airship measuring 151 feet in length, holding 75,231 cu ft of hydrogen and capable of lifting up to 2,200 pounds.

It was powered by a 30-hp Hanson gasoline engine and the top speed was listed at 31 miles per hour. Passengers were seated in a wooden gondola, partially sheltered by canvas sides and floor. Some sources put the passenger capacity at 13, others at 10.

In 1913 Knabenshue opened what was the first scheduled passenger air transport service with his airship, flying regularly from Pasadena to Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Long Beach. But the service failed to survive.

Passengers, it turned out, were more interested in the trip as a sightseeing adventure than as a means of regular, point-to-point transportation. That, along with the exorbitant $25 price of a ticket, helped ensure a dwindling market, and as receipts fell, Knabenshue abandoned the venture and returned to more lucrative public exhibitions.

But not before the Pasadena and her intrepid pilot were immortalized in a Universal City silent film, The Flight of Life. Later, the airship achieved some more substantial fame as the platform for the first in-flight ground/air wireless message transmission, made between the Pasadena and a government facility in San Pedro.

It was a lengthy career that carried Knabenshue through World War I, designing and building captive observation balloons with B. F. Goodrich, and the early days of World War II, when he was offered a commission and a position as head of the Navy’s airship program.

Mark Knabenshue recalls that in response, his grandfather had one question for the Navy: “Are you going to order me to go up in any weather at any time and any place?”

When the Navy said “yes,” Knabenshue said “no,” Mark recalled being told. His grandfather, it seems, had a reputation for being a cautious and practical man, “not one to take unnecessary risks.”

Today, Roy Knabenshue lies in the Portal of the Folded Wings in Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood, within easy earshot of the present-day Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, an appropriate resting place for the first man to pilot a dirigible in the U.S., and to launch the first scheduled passenger air service.

But then again, I could be wrong. Maybe it’s just one of those things I know that just ain’t so.