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 4 of 5)
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.
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.