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Chalk's Ocean Airways

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

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.

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