Benoist
   
Type XII
   

Thomas W. Benoist (29 December 1874 – 14 June 1917) was an American aviator and aircraft manufacturer. In an aviation career of only ten years, he formed the world's first aircraft parts distribution company, established one of the leading early American aircraft manufacturing companies and a successful flying school, and from January to April 1914 operated the world's first scheduled airline.

Benoist purchased a Curtiss-type airplane built by Howard Gill and learned to fly it, making his first flight on 18 September 1910 at the Kinloch Park Aero Club field in Kinloch, Missouri. He gave flying exhibitions in the Midwestern and Southern United States, but an injury he suffered in a flying mishap during one of them prevented him from taking part in an international aviation meet in mid-October 1910. He recovered quickly, however, and on 22 December 1910 received a pilot's license from the Aero Club of America, the first person from St. Louis to do so.

In March 1911, Benoist established the Aerosco Flying School at Kinloch Field, and it soon drew students from throughout the United States; it later was renamed the Benoist Flying School. At around the same time, he bought out his partner and moved the original Aerosco company to a larger facility in a suburb of St. Louis, renaming it the Benoist Aircraft Company. With the name change, he reoriented the company from dealing in aviation parts and kits for aircraft by other manufacturers to building airplanes of original design. As an intermediate step, he designed and manufactured a version of the Curtiss-Gill airplane he had purchased in 1910. The flying school and manufacturing concern were both so successful that Benoist airplanes and pilots soon were appearing all over the United States.

On 20 October 1911, the Benoist Aircraft factory burned to the ground, destroying five complete airplanes, many tools, machinery, and all of the company's files. Although the loss was not insured, Benoist bounced back quickly, opening a new factory nearby, bringing aviator Tony Jannus – who would soon become its chief pilot – into the company in November 1911, and designing and building the first Benoist airplane of completely original design, the Type XII Headless, before the end of 1911.

By 1912, Benoist Aircraft was one of the leading aircraft companies in the world. The Type XII Headless made history when, piloted by Jannus, it carried Albert Berry over Kinloch Field on 1 March 1912 and Berry made the world's first successful parachute jump from an airplane. Improvements in the Type XII led to the development of the Land Tractor Type XII later in the year, which, configured as a floatplane, set a distance record for overwater flight in a journey of 1,973 miles (3,177 km) down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers from Omaha, Nebraska, to New Orleans, Louisana, between 6 November and 16 December 1912. Jannus performed 42 aerial exhibitions during the trip, exposing thousands of people in the central and southern United States to aviation.

In December 1912, Benoist Aircraft produced its first flying boat, the Type XIII Lake Cruiser, which the company demonstrated widely during the summer of 1913. A larger Type XIV flying boat soon followed.

In 1913, Percival E. Fansler brought in Benoist to start an air passenger service using Benoist Aircraft's new flying boats to connect St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida, two cities that otherwise were a day's travel apart at the time. Benoist signed a three-month contract to provide the service with the St. Petersburg Board of Trade on 17 December 1913, subsidizing 50% of the costs for starting the airline. Benoist initiated the service, the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, using a Benoist XIV flying boat, on 1 January 1914. It was the first scheduled airline service in the world. Two Benoist XIVs provided twice-daily service across Tampa Bay and by the time the initial contract expired on 31 March 1914 had transported 1,204 passengers without injury, losing only four days to mechanical problems. A decline in business led the airline to shut down in late April 1914 and sell its two flying boats.

Unable to secure a large contract for its airplanes during World War I, Benoist Aircraft began to experience financial problems by 1915. To reduce costs, Benoist moved the company first to Chicago, Illinois, and then to Sandusky, Ohio, where it affiliated with the Roberts Motor Company, which was Benoist's preferred source for aircraft engines. Benoist designed the Type XVI flying boat and Type XVII landplane, both of which appeared in 1916.

On 14 June 1917, Benoist died when he struck his head against a telephone pole while stepping off a streetcar in front of the Roberts Motor Company in Sandusky. With him gone and facing continued financial problems, the Benoist Aircraft Company and the Roberts Motor Company both went out of business in early 1918. Benoist Aircraft had built just over 100 airplanes in its history by the time it ceased operations.

Summary of aircraft built by Benoist
Model name First flight Number built Type
Benoist Headless 1910 1 Modified Curtiss Pusher
1912 Benoist 1912 1 Tractor biplane
Benoist Land Tractor Type XII 1912 5 Tractor biplane
Benoist XIV 1913 2 Flying boat
Benoist C 1915 1 Pusher twin floatplane
Benoist E 1915 1 Pusher twin floatplane
Benoist XV 1915 1 Flying boat
Benoist XVII 1916 1 Tricycle Biplane

Source: Wikipedia