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Chalk's Ocean Airways

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

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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.

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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.

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