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Chalk's Ocean Airways

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

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.

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