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 3 of 5)
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.