Polk aviation enthusiast to recreate first commercial flight - WFLA News Channel 8

Polk aviation enthusiast to recreate first commercial flight

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Kermit Weeks with the Benoist Kermit Weeks with the Benoist
POLK COUNTY, FL (WFLA) -

A local aviation enthusiast will be ringing in the new year in a unique way.

Kermit Weeks is an antique aircraft expert and the founder of the "Fantasy of Flight" aviation museum in Polk County. On New Year's Day, Weeks will reenact the first ever commercial airplane flight, which took place 100 years ago, right here in Tampa Bay.

Tony Jannus piloted the historic flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa, on Jan. 1, 1914. The flight took 23 minutes and cost $5. The very first airline passenger was a former St. Pete Mayor Abe Pheil.

During Weeks' reenactment of the flight, his only passenger will be a descendant of Mayor Pheil, a woman named Christine, a gymnast.

As a part of the project, which is called "Flight 2014", Weeks will make the flight in an airplane that has the exact same engine as the aircraft used by Jannus.

How Weeks Constructed the Plane

Building the aircraft was a tall order for Weeks. He said he wanted to build a real engine for the plane, not recreate a replica aircraft with a modern engine in it.

Weeks said only five engines for this kind of the aircraft are left and they all belong to the national museums. Only one engine was available to borrow and it has been in a crash.

"So we basically used the engine and we reverse-engineered it and we had the engine built from scratch," Weeks told WFLA.com.

A shop in Ohio called Vintage Auto Rebuilds specializes in old cars and helped with the airplane's motor. However, there were no Benoists water aircraft left in the world to put in the engine. So, Weeks' engineers designed a plane based on the similar ones, like the Benoist land plane. They used the Smithsonian Museum's archives, books, pictures and articles as references .

"With that, we kinda had to design our own airplane based on what dimensions and things we could get," Weeks said.

About three months ago, Weeks said he realized they were running out of time, so he asked everybody in his aircraft department to focus on the plane. On Wednesday morning Dec. 18, Weeks plans to begin the assembly of the plane in the south hangar.

"By this weekend, this thing's better be pretty close to flying," he said.

As far as safety goes, Weeks is confident his plane will be okay. He said during the three months of the original plane's operations, the plane transported 1205 passengers and some freight without a single accident.

Weeks said the engine of his replica airplane will have a special sound to it, because it is a genuine engine that gets its horsepower from a higher torque and lower RPMs.

"It will be very interesting not only to see it fly, but to hear it fly," he said.

The celebratory flight is set for 10 a.m. Jan.1 from the North Yacht Basin in downtown St. Pete to the Seaplane Basin at Peter O. Knight Airport in Tampa. The mayors of both cities will be there for the take-off and landing.

Kermit Weeks Has a Passion for Aviation

Weeks has been involved in the aviation since he was a little boy, according to his biography on the Fantasy of Flight website. A passion for the sky has become a driving force in his life and career. He started building his first aircraft when he was 17 then flew that airplane about four years later. At the age of 20, Weeks took part in aerobatic competitions and soon became a aerobatic pilot who was honored with multiple international awards.

While learning to fly, Weeks studied for an aeronautical engineering degree at Miami-Dade Junior College, the University of Florida, and Purdue University. During his studies at college, he learned how to design new airplanes and restore old ones.

In 1985, Weeks opened the "Weeks Air Museum" in Miami. The museum was a non-profit facility that was home to his private collection and antique aircraft owned by the museum.

After Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992, Weeks moved some of the damaged aircraft at Weeks Air Museum to Polk County, where he opened Fantasy of Flight.

Throughout the years, Weeks has been honored for his work restoring antique and vintage airplanes.

The project Flight 2014 started spontaneously at a luncheon in 2008 when Weeks was being inducted into the Florida Aviation Hall of Fame. One of the members of the Florida Aviation Historic Society mentioned the anniversary coming up and Weeks voiced an idea of building the airplane from scratch and actually flying it.

You can visit Fantasy of Flight attraction to see the world's largest private collection of the vintage aircraft, check out WalkAir attraction and get a behind-the-scenes tour.


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