Chalk's Ocean Airways
Since 1919, this little airline has managed to keep its head above water
- By Henry Scammell
- Air & Space magazine, January 2003
(Page 2 of 5)
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.