Chalk’s Ocean Airways

Since 1919, this little airline has managed to keep its head above water

ARTHUR BURNS CHALK'S CAREER IN SEAPLANE FLYING BEGAN IN THE UNLIKELY SETTING of Paducah, Kentucky. In 1911, Chalk, 23, was working there as a mechanic when a barnstormer and seaplane flier named Tony Janus came to town. Janus’ aircraft had developed engine trouble. He and Chalk struck an agreement: Chalk would fix the engine; in return, Janus would teach the young man how to fly.

A few years later, Janus migrated to Miami and, operating a Benoist flying boat, started the nation’s first scheduled passenger air service, the St.Petersburg-Tampa Airboat. Chalk must have been inspired by Janus’ example; he moved south as well. Initially making a living as a barnstormer, in 1917 he founded the Red Arrow Flying Service, on the dock of the Royal Palm Hotel in Miami. His office was a small table under a beach umbrella, and his reservation system was a single crank telephone hanging from a pole. Because neither Miami nor the Bahamian islands he frequently flew to had airports, Chalk equipped his three-seat Stinson Voyager with floats so that he could take off and land the aircraft on water.

In 1919, the operation, by then named Chalk’s Flying Service, inaugurated a regular schedule to Bimini, a Bahamian island 50 miles off the southern Florida coast.

Eighty-three years later, the business, now called Chalk’s Ocean Airways, is still flying passengers in seaplanes back and forth between Florida and the Bahamas. It is, according to no less an authority than the Guinness Book of Records, the world’s oldest continuously operating airline.

August 2002. At the airport in Fort Lauderdale, Chalk’s passengers start their trips downstairs, at a tiny, dimly lit ticket counter. Long lines are a rarity. All baggage is checked through to the hold; almost no carry-on is permitted. On a recent trip, the only visible exceptions were cameras, purses, a tape recorder, and a lined writing tablet, and the last two probably apply only if you are doing a story on the airline.

Then it’s on to a cinderblock waiting room. It’s not uncommon for the room to hold two flights’ worth of passengers at once, but even at capacity, the crowd wouldn’t fill the last nine rows of a 737.

The mix of passengers depends on the destinations: groups of fishermen and some couples headed to Walker’s Cay and Bimini; more couples, families, and a number of business people headed to Atlantis, the resort complex on Paradise Island. Everywhere are printed T’s and bleached jeans and cutoffs.

Bimini, a ragged sevenmile strip of sand, was, in the early part of the century, principally a destination for sports fishermen. That changed abruptly in 1919, with the enactment of Prohibition. Because it was the nearest of the still-wet Bahamas, the island became a hub for smuggling alcohol into the States. Chalk’s began catering to bootleggers traveling to Bimini to contact suppliers, pay them, and check on their inventory; with equal courtesy and reliability, it transported numerous federal agents shadowing the smugglers. Many of the most prominent gangsters of the era used Chalk’s, including a stocky, moonfaced Sicilian named Al Capone.

With ascending fortunes, Chalk built himself a small kiosk-style terminal at Watson Island, situated in Biscayne Bay between Miami and Miami Beach. He also upgraded his inventory. One early acquisition was a Benoist biplane. Unlike the float-modified Stinson, the Benoist was a flying boat—a hull lander, with no floats. The engine, built by Roberts Motors, was a two-stroke, water-cooled model that had the frequent bad habits of backfiring and belching flames, challenging Chalk’s skills equally as a mechanic and as a pilot.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, Bimini and the airline that served it began to attract another tier of travelers: Errol Flynn was a Chalk’s aficionado, and later so were Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Judy Garland, and the eventual all-time king of flying boats, Howard “Spruce Goose” Hughes. Ernest Hemingway loved Bimini for its access to deep-water fishing, and was a regular Chalk’s passenger during the 1940s.

In later years, the little airline moved up to the Sikorsky S-38, a far more reliable multi-engine flying boat. Rival Pan American Airways used S-38s to survey the Caribbean and serve island destinations there. Chalk also flew a single-engine Fairchild 71 that had been outfitted with floats.

After World War II, he upgraded to Grumman amphibians: a five-passenger Widgeon, a nine-passenger Goose, and, in the 1960s, the first of several Mallards. Unlike its smaller predecessors, the Mallard had tricycle landing gear, a stressed-skin, two-step hull, and wing-mounted floats for stabilizing the craft on the water (these could also serve as auxiliary fuel tanks).

In 1966, Chalk, by then known as Pappy because of his white hair, stopped flying, having logged around 17,000 hours. Four years later, he sold the business to Dean Franklin, who had been a pilot for the small airline for 30 years. By then, Chalk’s was operating four Gooses and three Mallards, and the staff had grown to 16, including pilots and maintenance and sales personnel.

Even after retirement, Chalk could not leave the love of his life. “He came by every day except Sundays to feed the birds, and to feed us,” recalls Jean Munroe, Chalk’s system and interline manager. “He brought seed for the pigeons, and soup and sandwiches from a diner in Miami for the employees. He didn’t even have a driver’s license; his niece brought him ver, waited while he went through his daily routine, then drove him home.”

In 1977, just short of his 90th birthday, the aviation pioneer who had never lost a passenger finally himself fell victim to gravity, slipping from a ladder while pruning a tree in his yard. He died soon after.

Since September 11, security restrictions have forced Chalk’s to revise its Bahama-bound flights. The Mallards have for the most part been departing as landplanes from the Fort Lauderdale airport, rather than as seaplanes from Watson Island, which is considered more vulnerable to terrorist attack.

To a passenger standing at its threshold, the Mallard seems more like an airplane than a boat. But when one steps into the craft, that step is down. So is the next one. Compared with the design of similar-sized landplanes, the door of the Mallard is set higher in the hull to keep out the water, and both the captain and the first officer sit at a higher level in order to see over the bow. With those first steps, plus the scent of salt air, the airplane’s second nature becomes apparent.

The Mallard’s interior reflects the middle years of powered flight—the cabin walls are painted, rather than covered with fabric, and you can count the rivet heads—but the seats are comfortable. Seating is catch as catch can. There’s no door to the cockpit, just an archway in the bulkhead, so you can look up at the pilot and first officer.

Dean Franklin held onto the airline for slightly over a year, and in 1974 his successor sold it to Resorts International, which then operated a vacation complex on Paradise Island. Resorts CEO James Crosby had Grumman adapt the Albatross, a World War II search-andrescue craft, for commuter usage. The result, the G-111, could carry 28 passengers. It entered service with Chalk’s in 1982.

Following Crosby’s death in 1986, Chalk’s was owned briefly by his sisters and then successively by Donald Trump and Merv Griffin. In an attempt to save money, Trump cut the seaplane fleet to four Mallards and put the Albatrosses into storage.

In 1991, title passed to Seth Atwood, the heir to an auto parts fortune. Atwood approached his proprietorship as both a businessman and the conservator of a valuable public trust. Ironically, it was during his tenure that the airline experienced its first real tragedy. In 1994, two pilots were hurriedly ferrying an otherwise-empty airplane from Key West, and skipping the checklist, they failed to detect a hull leak that had apparently developed since the previous landing. During takeoff, water that had accumulated in the hull sloshed to the tail, shifting the center of gravity and causing the airplane to fall into the sea. Both crew members aboard died.

Under subsequent owners, Chalk’s joined the resurrected remains of its one-time rival to operate briefly as Pan Am Air Bridge. That company, in turn, was sucked into the bankruptcy of another owner. Still, Chalk’s kept flying.

At Miami and the Bahamian islands, the takeoffs are amphibious. Once the passengers have boarded, the Mallard sets off noisily, purposefully, on its landing gear, proceeding down a ramp and toward the water. At the ramp’s lip, the Mallard’s nose dips and the tail bobs like a duck’s. Once the craft is afloat, its roar is punctuated by two soft thumps as the landing gear, looking like the legs of a knock-kneed seabird, retract, folding up and nesting in wells in the hull. Spray flies by the window as the Mallard gathers speed.

Takeoff from water is very different from a runway takeoff. A flying boat is bound to the water’s surface by the entire length of its hull, and passengers are aware of a greater sense of heavy lifting as the airplane labors upward to break that broad embrace.

The 60-mile trip to Bimini is usually flown at 1,000 to 2,500 feet, depending on the weather. At a cruise speed of 185 mph, it lasts only about 20 minutes from climbout to the start of descent. The island Walker’s Cay is a few minutes further, and the trip to Paradise Island is three or four times higher and longer. Most Chalk’s flights are smooth, and the views, especially on approach, are breathtaking.

As the Mallard flies low over the Bahamas, the shadows of fleecy clouds drift by like ragged, sunken islands. The color of the water ranges from wet canvas on the bonefish flats to bleached emerald on the shoals to deep cobalt at Tongue of the Ocean. (No wonder Al Capone, in the black-and-white poverty of the Depression, kept coming back for more.)

Longtime Chalk’s manager Bill Jones left the airline briefly in a policy dispute with the successor to the bankrupt Pan Am owner, but he was brought back in the spring of 1999 by the courtappointed trustee just three days before the airline’s operating insurance was to expire. He quickly found interim financing, averting a breach in service that would have ended Chalk’s claim as the world’s oldest continuously operating airline. In similarly rapid succession, Jim Confalone, an entrepreneur and former Eastern Airlines pilot, obtained the titles to five Mallards, which had fallen into the hands of various Chalk’s creditors. Today, Jones is general manager, in charge of day-to-day operations, while Confalone is responsible for setting Chalk’s goals and for developing its strategic partnerships.

Confalone also oversees inventory, and he has acquired a treasure trove of airplane parts and blueprints from Dean Franklin Aviation, the company founded by Pappy Chalk’s successor. The old and brittle factory drawings for the Grumman amphibians have been carefully reproduced as computer files. During the 1946–1951 production run, Grumman built only 59 Mallards, so many vital parts no longer exist. The drawings enable Chalk’s machine shop to fabricate replacements.

“We do a lot to keep these airplanes aloft,” says Jones. “One sixth of the airplane is minutely inspected for corrosion, cracking, or any sign of wear every 250 flight hours. That takes us through the whole airplane in 12 or 13 months. The landing gear are subject to a lot of stress and are inspected in every cycle. The airplanes are continually rebuilt, and there is very little left of the original.”

The one serious anachronism is the model of engine now used. The original radials, two 600-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1340-S3H1 Wasps, were raucous, thirsty shakers, as hard on the ears as on the bones. Resorts International’s James Crosby replaced them with turbine engines. The Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 turboprops were fitted with propellers that are smaller than the Wasps’; because they have less contact with the water, they produce less spray and therefore less turbine corrosion. The conversions raised fuel efficiency by 20 percent, almost doubled the Mallards’ range, and enabled Chalk’s to increase each craft’s capacity to 17 passengers.

At the moment, 14 pilots take turns flying the three Grumman Mallards, with each pilot logging 100 hours a month from Florida to Walker’s Cay, Bimini, and Paradise Island.

One of the newer pilots is Rebecca Diamond. In the spring of 2000, Diamond, then a 24-year-old with a commercial pilot’s license, was driving through Miami when she caught sight of a small float-equipped airplane overhead. Enchanted, she followed it to its landing on Biscayne Bay, and watched it taxi to a ramp on Watson Island. Nearby was a small, low building with a “Chalk’s Ocean Airways” sign. She walked into the operations office and right then and there asked for an employment application.

Though Diamond had multi-engine certification, she was afraid she would be at a disadvantage because she had never flown an airplane off the water. But the airline called her back, and she started flying as a first officer that June. “Chalk’s likes people who don’t have a lot of sea time,” she says. “Because it’s such an unusual airplane, they like to train you specifically, so you don’t come in with prior notions.

“It’s the closest thing you can get commercially to World War II flying—much more strenuous than most pilot jobs because of the change of the tides and the wind and the boats and the jet skis. It’s hands-on, no autopilot, with hop-skip-and-jump, 20-minute turns, and all-day-long days. But then they give you a lot of days off. It’s a wonderful job.” Last March, Diamond was made captain, the youngest in the fleet.

In addition to its regular service, Chalk’s also runs a charter business; over the years it has carried British royalty, business titans, and miscellaneous rock stars to various private Bahamian islands.

Confalone says he has plans for an expansive future, though he keeps them confidential. He does acknowledge that he’s had conversations with former owner Seth Atwood about bringing back the 14 warehoused Albatrosses.

Most passengers would find nothing particularly novel about a water approach to landing; those who regularly fly into Boston’s Logan Airport, for example, are used to looking down and seeing whitecaps until the moment of touchdown. A water landing, on the other hand, is a different matter. The view out the window, once sky, is replaced not by a firm and friendly concrete runway but by a watery pathway among yachts and islets.

Landplane passengers used to a certain amount of bounce on touchdown might expect the seaplane to come in like a skipping rock. In fact, the opposite is the norm: The Mallard is in smooth, continuous contact with the sea from the first touch. When the drag of the water becomes greater than the lift of the wing, the view from the side windows is engulfed in a wall of spray, but only for an instant; then the airplane settles into its role as yacht, and the water skims by under the hull’s aluminum skin as smoothly as an electric sander.

A few moments later, the seaplane makes its final change. It pauses at the water’s edge, gathering its power with a roar and curtsy before lowering its landing gear and then rumbling up a ramp and onto land.

Now departing Paradise...All day long, Chalk’s amphibious Grumman Mallards shuttle tourists in and out of Paradise Island and other Bahamian destinations. Caroline Sheen

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