Very few airlines have been able to conquer both the sea and the air. One of the few airlines to do so was Chalk’s Ocean Airways. Based in Florida, the small airline used seaplanes to transport locals and tourists around the state and to the Bahamas. At one point the airline claimed to be the oldest airline in operations. However, mismanagement and cost cutting lead to their unfortunate demise.
Chalk’s Ocean Air was founded in 1917 as Red Arrow Flying Services by Arthur “Pappy” Chalk. The airline, originally operating as an ad-hoc charter carrier, was suspended during World War One while Chalk served in the Army Air Service. Once the Great War ended, Chalk returned to Miami and set up scheduled service between Miami and the Bahamas in 1919. At this time he renamed the Red Arrow Flying Service as Chalk’s Flying Service.
The airline’s first base was a beach umbrella on the edge of Biscayne Bay in Miami. Despite the simple setup, Chalk’s service proved to be very popular. In 1926 a man-made landfill area, known as Watson Island, was built in Biscayne Bay. Chalk moved to the new island and set up a permanent base of operations there. The site on Watson Island allowed Chalk direct access to the channel between Dodge Island and Watson Island, which the airline used as a runway.
During the Prohibition Era, the airline grew rapidly. This was due to bootleggers using the airline to smuggle alcohol from the Bahamas to the U.S. By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, Chalk’s operations were well known in the area and beyond. Throughout the airline’s history it had carried many celebrities, most notably Howard Hughes, Al Capone, and Ernest Hemingway.
Chalk also used his versatile planes for public service in times of need. After the hurricane of 1926, Chalk offered his planes to help in search and rescue missions throughout the Florida Keys. During World War Two, he suspended operations of the airline for 3 years and donated his planes to the Civil Air Patrol. During this time Chalk’s aircraft performed hundreds of anti-Submarine missions.
After the War, Pappy Chalk continued working with the airline till he retired in 1975. In 1974, Resorts International, the owner of numerous hotels and resorts in the Bahamas and on Paradise Island, bought Chalk’s Flying Service and made the airline the primary carrier to Paradise Island. Resorts International partnered with Frank’s Aviation to upgrade the airline’s fleet of Grumman Mallards from piston engines to turboprop engines. In 1985 they also converted five ex-military Grumman Albatrosses to passenger service. The larger Albatrosses helped them provide better service in flight such as flight attendants, lavatories and snacks on board.
In 1991, Resorts International built a runway on Paradise Island and sold off Chalk’s to United Capital Corporation of Illinois. United expanded service to Key West and to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, even as they continued to struggle financially. After only 5 years in charge, United Capital sold Chalk’s to a group of Florida investors who renamed Chalk’s with a more modern concept known as the Pan Am Air Bridge. Two years later, Air Alaska, a Texas based aircraft leasing company bought 70% of Pan Am Air Bridge. While the purchase created much buzz and excitement, it was short lived as only a year later Air Alaska filed for bankruptcy protection and Pan Am Air Bridge followed suit.
Chalk’s was brought out of bankruptcy by former Eastern pilot James Confalone. At the time he bought the airline, the fleet had been reduced to two Grumman Mallards and only 35 staff members. Less than 11 months after the bankruptcy filing, Chalk’s relaunched as Chalk’s Ocean Airways. Confalone brought in more Mallards to the fleet as well as the larger Grumman Albatross again in an effort to help the airline expand. In 2001, Chalk’s was forced to leave their long time home on Watson Island due to security concerns following the September 11th Attacks. The airline moved operations to Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
The beginning of the end began in 2005 when tragedy suddenly struck the airline. Chalk’s Ocean Airways Flight 101 from Ft. Lauderdale to Bimini, with an unscheduled stop in Miami, crashed shortly after takeoff. Immediately following the crash the airline suspended operations due to maintenance concerns. Initially Chalk’s planned to return to operations as Chalk’s International Airlines in late 2006, however by that time the airlines Bahamian air certificate expired.
In early 2007 the NTSB released a preliminary report on the crash of flight 101. They laid blame for the crash on Chalk’s failure to identify cracks in the wing and their failure to properly maintain their aircraft. At the time, Chalk’s was wet leasing Beechcraft 1900D’s from Big Sky Airlines to operate between Ft. Lauderdale, St. Petersburg, and Key West. Service was later added between Palm Beach and the Bahamas, however these new routes were met with disappointing results as only 14 passengers were carried through Palm Beach in one month.
After the final report on the crash of Flight 101 came out in late 2007, the FAA revoked Chalk’s flying authority, ending 88 years of non-continuous service. At the time, Chalk was a shell of it’s former self, as the airline’s public reputation had been destroyed by the preliminary NTSB report. The airline’s maintenance issues stemmed from the aging Grumman fleet, most of which were made in the 1940’s. This meant spares were hard to come by for Chalk’s, which lead to faulty maintenance issues. Although at the end of its life Chalk’s Ocean Airways had been tarnished by improper maintenance and an aging fleet, the airline still had a noble history. At the time of cessation, Chalk’s claimed to be the oldest airline in operations, being founded in early 1919. Today KLM, founded later in 1919 in Amsterdam, now holds this crown. Chalk’s was once a great airline, carrying the world’s elite to their vacations in the Bahamas. It will most certainly go down in the record books as an airline with a volatile history but a passion for serving the Caribbean.