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First St. Louis Pilot Receives Recognition and Memorial Highway

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Most probably don’t recognize the name Thomas Benoist, unless they’ve recently passed by the highway that was named after him in Washington County Missouri. Thomas Benoist was a pioneer in the field of aviation, and the first St. Louisan to get his pilot license – one of eight in the world.

Benoist was a contemporary among the Wright Brothers, and played a key role in Missouri aviation. Benoist became interested in flying after a trip in a hot air balloon at the 1904 World’s Fair. Benoist left the auto-building industry and started building planes instead. By 1910 he was building full-sized aircraft, and he taught himself to fly.

Benoist dedicated his life to flight. He invented new plane designs, taught others to fly in schools all over the United States, and performed flying exhibitions in his own Benoist Aerial Exhibition Company. In 1912 he went on a 40-day flight across Omaha, Nebraska, to New Orleans, Louisiana, over the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

Impressed by his trip, businessman Percival Fansler came to Benoist to create the first commercial airline. At the time Benoist was also being hired by Washington to create planes for the military, but before Benoist could complete his work, he passed away at the age of 43 in a car accident, in which he leaned out the window of a streetcar and was struck in the head by an overreaching telephone pole. He died in the hospital, and was buried in Irondale in the Hopewell Cemetery.

His amazing achievements, accomplished in a span of only eight years, are now being recognized with a memorial highway that runs past his old homestead in Irondale. His nephew Charles "Chuck" Benoist instigated the ceremony to honor this great aviator.

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