Roger Weightman Jannus – United States Army


Roger, the Other Jannus
By Thomas Reilly

Roger Weightman Jannus seemed forever to be in the shadow of his younger brother, Tony. Tony Jannus was one of America's pioneering airmen from 1910 through 1916. He earned fame for his record-breaking 1,973-mile flight from Omaha, Nebraska, to New Orleans in 1912, and for being part of the first drop of a parachutist from an airplane. In 1914, he was one of the driving forces behind the organization and the success of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, recognized as the wrold's first scheduled passenger airline. The premature death of Tony in 1916  at the age of 27 served to strengthen his legend.

But there was another Jannus, and that was Roger Weightman Jannus, the son of Frankland and Emeline Carlisle Weightman, who was born in Washington, D.C., on December 25, 1886. Following his graduation from high school, Roger studied engineering. He earned a degree in civil engineering from Lehigh University, eventually ending up in Panama as an engineer on the Panama Canal.

Roger's interests changed in January, 1913. He departed Panama and joined his brother Tony in St. Louis. As chief pilot for the Benoist Aeroplane Company, Tony hired Roger as shop mechanic. Shortly after, Roger began taking flying lessons from William H. Bleakley. Bleakley had earlier been a student of Tony's and had only recently received his own license and was now an instructor. Roger's flying skills may not have equaled Tony's, but they were not far behind. Soon, Roger was a more than competent aviator and part of the Benoist aerial exhibition team.

By December, when Tony and Tom Benoist journeyed to St. Petersburg, Florida, to begin scheduled airline service between St. Petersburg and Tampa. Roger became an integral part of the team. Along with Tony, Roger was one of the pilots for the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, now recognized as the world's first scheduled passenger airline. The company's contract with the city ended after only three months and was not renewed.

Tony, Roger, and J.D. Smith, their mechanic, left Benoist's company and headed to Paducah, Kentucky, in June. There, they intended to start another airline. After only a few weeks, Tony and Smith headed to Cedar Point, Ohio, where they had contracted with the owner of a large hotel; to perform exhibitions and give rides to the hotel's guests. Roger took the Benoist flying boat named Lark of Duluth, to Duluth where he was kept busy flying exhibitions. The Benoist flying boat, Model 13, Number 43, which had been used to fly between St. Petersburg and Tampa, was owned by W.D. Jones of Duluth.

In August, Jones expressed an interest in selling the Lark. Roger bought it, and headed to Cedar Point for a reunion with his brother. Throughout the summer of 1914, both Roger and Tony flew many exhibitions in the Midwest. Following the end of summer, the Jannus brothers shipped their aircraft to Baltimore. There, they opened their own company, named the Jannus Brothers, located at 1000 Battery Place. Both brothers taught flying; Roger concentrated on exhibitions, while Tony focused his efforts on the design and construction of the Jannus flying boat.

At the end of 1914, Roger, Tony, J.D. Smith and Knox Martin, new to the company, decided to take the Benoist flying boat Number 43 to San Diego, California. By early January, Roger, Smith and Martin were in California. Tony had remained in Baltimore. The California contingent did a thriving business. While at San Diego, Roger received seaplane pilot's license Number 26 from the Aero Club of America. J.D. Smith crashed the flying boat into San Diego Bay on February 19. It was not salvageable. Jannus and Smith headed back east.

While Roger was in California, Tony's test flying of the Jannus Flying boat had gone well. The brothers signed a contract to operate at a Toledo beach resort, located on Lake Erie, during the summer. At the same time, W.E. Davidson of  Detroit bought the Jannus flying boat. While Tony was in Detroit supervising the assembly of the aircraft, he made a side trip to Toronto. There he met with J.A.D. McCurdy, general manager of Glenn Curtiss's Canadian aircraft operation. When Tony decided to go to work for Curtiss, Roger fulfilled the remainder of the summer contract at Toledo.

Roger spent the next several months flying for other people, including Tom Benoist. While in Sandusky, Ohio, he test flew Benoist's Model G-17 boat,  two-engine, seven-passenger flying boat.

In April 1916, Roger went to work for the Curtiss Aeroplane Company and went to Russia where he engaged in diplomatic work for Curtiss. In August, after only four months in Russia, Roger returned to America. Two months later, Tony crashed a Curtiss H-7 flying boat into the Russian Black Sea and was killed.

In January, Roger was in Miami. He was serving as a civilian flight instructor at  the Curtiss school for the U.S. Army's aviation reserve corps students. Phil Rader served as chief instructor, with Jannus, “Fish” Hassell, Harold Kantner and W.A. Spratt acting as flight instructors. For flight training, they used three Curtiss Jennies and a flying boat. Training was fast, usually no more than eight to 10 hours before a cadet soloed.

Several early American aviators have given Roger Jannus credit for devising a maneuver that would correct a deadly tailspin. Arthur L Richmond, a young Harvard-educated student assigned to Jannus's class at Miami, recalled that “Roger Jannus was the first pilot, to my knowledge, to have had the temerity to push the controls forward and use the rudder against the direction of the spin, thereby putting the airplane in a vertical position earthward, but regaining flight speed which brought back sufficient pressure on the elevator controls to pull the ship out of the dive after flying speed had been regained.”

In June, Jannus enlisted in the Aviation Branch of the United States Signal Corps as a Private First Class. A week later, he received a commission as a First Lieutenant.

On September 4, Jannus reported to Selfridge Field, located 20 miles northeast of Detroit. First Lieutenant Logan T. McMenemy, the Officer in Charge of Flying at Selfridge, had heard of Jannus's reputation and had been instrumental in his assignment to Selfridge. McMenemy had been charged with the task of establishing an advanced school of acrobatics. He remembered, “Rumor had it that a certain civilian, Roger Jannus, had learned to get out of the then deadly tailspin.”

McMenemy made sure that Jannus was assigned to Selfridge.

On December 27, 1917, recently promoted Captain Jannus was married to Lucille Riviere Taylor. Shortly before his marriage, he had received orders transferring him to the 87th Aero Squadron at Ellington Field, just outside of Houston, Texas. There, Jannus honed his flying skills in advanced acrobatics and night flying. Jannus and McMenemy shared the honor of taking the first ship off the partly finished Ellington Field.

During the spring of 1918, Captain Jannus was assigned to the Overseas Training Liason Mission, a command of pilots highly trained in aerial pursuit and bombardment. By mid-July, Roger had arrived in France and attended bombardment
school at Clermont-Ferrand, near Vichy. He then received orders to the pursuit school at Issoudon, Jannus flew the British-designed de Havilland-4, a single-engine two-seat reconnaissance bomber. The DH-4 had been nicknamed the “Flying Coffin” and was described as two wings on a hearse, all for good reason. It was a dangerous aircraft to fly.

Roger met his death in midair on September 4, 1918, at the controls of a DH-4. He had just finished flying offensive air patrols over field number seven at the sprawling Issoudon base. His aircraft inexplicably exploded into a fatal ball of flame. Both Jannus and his student were killed. Several theories attempted to explain the cause of the explosion. It was probably because of a leaky gasoline tank.

His death did not go unnoticed. General John J. Pershing, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army's American Expeditionary Force, cited Roger for “Bravely laying down his life for the cause of his country.” President Woodrow Wilson wrote that Jannus “served with honor.” France's president posthumously awarded Roger Jannus the Pendant la Grande Guerre.

Roger Weightman Jannus's aviation accomplishments were many. An Early Bird flier, he was the recipient of one of the Aero Club of America's first seaplane licenses. He made history as a pilot for the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, the world's first airline. An accomplished World War I military pilot, Roger Jannus made significant contributions to the safety of flight through actions such as development of flight training manuals and recovery maneuvers from deadly tailspins. Jannus received a military burial at Arlington national Cemetery.

This comes from an article in the Journal, American Aviation Historical Society, Spring 1997, by Thomas Reilly, we are indebted to Mr. Reilly for his courtesy in allowing me to use this reprint and also for his supplying photos of Roger Jannus, Tony Jannus and Tom Benoist for my use.


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