Daily Flight Stories
Historic Wings is pleased to present our daily story celebrating what happened today in aviation history.
Published on December 19, 2012
In 1917, Arthur “Pappy” Chalk began a small charter airline called the Red Arrow Flying Service in Florida. Shortly afterwards, when the US entered World War I, he suspended its operations so he could join the US Army to fly. After returning from the war, in February 1919, he restarted his fledgling airline, renaming it to Chalk’s Flying Service. The first tickets were sold on the beach by Pappy Chalk himself from a chair in the sand under a simple beach umbrella. From this small “office”, a truly unique airline emerged and, in the years that followed, established itself as one of the most fascinating airlines in the world — of these things, legends are made.
Over the ninety years that followed those first flights, Pappy Chalk’s airline only suspended service for three years during World War II (on orders from the Federal Government), two days during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and for a short while after 9/11, when all airlines in the USA were grounded. In act, the world’s oldest airline finally ceased operations in 2007 only after a string of bad luck, problems with its aging fleet of seaplanes, maintenance issues and slackened demand for its primary island destinations of the Bahamas. Along the way, the airline had many ups and downs — but it carved out a name for itself in aviation history that can never be forgotten.
The Challenges of Seaplane Operations
For many years, Chalks operated from a small island offshore from Miami, Florida, located in the heart of Biscayne Bay and called Watson Island. The airline’s fleet of aircraft were almost entirely seaplane-based. This tradition began during the pre-WWII era when few runways were available and most airlines operated seaplanes (flying boats) to serve routes of cities along the oceans and waterways of the world. In that era, most airlines relied on seaplanes to serve their passengers.
For Chalks too, this was a wise choice that offered access to and from various destinations in the Caribbean without the need for runways, since the planes took off from and landed on the water. Yet when the other airlines shifted to land-planes that to the many new runways that dotted the landscape after WWII, Chalks remained a seaplane operation. It had to, in a sense, since its primary destination, the Bahamas, was best accessed from the water and the beach.
Without doubt, however, there was a certain romance to seaplanes and flying off the water. It was convenient too — for instance, by the 1990s, Chalks was flying not to the airports of Nassau, where passengers would have to take buses or taxis to the larger hotels, but rather was landing on the water, taxiing up to the beach and unloading passengers right into the hotel itself. Further, while the demand for seaplane flights to and from the islands had always been a small niche market, it also meant that Chalks, despite its small size, never suffered from undue competition — thus, its very Achilles heel was also its raison d’etre.
While Pan American expanded from Miami and extended northward up the US east coast and down south to Cuba and beyond to Latin America, Chalks remained a small airline, never a threat for the large dreams and extensive funding of Juan Trippe. Further, seaplane operations were always more maintenance extensive than land-based planes — the wear and tear from landing on the rough waves and the salt water damage and corrosion was a constant challenge for the airline’s fleet.
Chalks found itself frequently operating with small profits and had to find creative ways to supplement its income. For example, during the years of prohibition in the USA, Chalks quietly become the premiere smuggling operation for illegal alcohol imports from the Bahamas to Miami. Even if the authorities found out about it, it seemed that Chalks was able to continue flying — at considerable profits, even if under the table.
By 1966, Pappy Chalks sold the airline, though he stayed on in management until 1975 before finally retiring. After that, his vision and guiding hand was sorely missed. The airline went through a series of new owners, each with their own parochial purposes in mind — resorts purchased in and wanted to use the airline to serve their vacation customers only, for instance. As a result, the airline’s popularity alternately improved and waned — in 1982, for instance, the airline flew 50,000 passengers in that year alone. Nonetheless, the good times didn’t last. Going through a bankruptcy and a series of owners, the airline was still able to steadily modernize and upgrade its fleet of seaplanes. Ultimately, the airline had optimized to around a dozen Grumman Mallard seaplanes powered by PT6 jet turboprop engines.
Disaster and Crisis
In the end, the seaplanes that created the demand for tickets also proved to be the greatest challenge facing the airline. As operations neared 90 years of flying, the ever more challenging and non-competitive cost structures associated with seaplane operations dragged the airline down further and further.
Other airlines made the transition to land-planes in the late 1940s and aircraft manufacturing followed suit. Naturally, the US seaplane aviation production industry stagnated and then died — there were simply not enough airline customers to support that segment of commercial aviation. Chalks was left operating a fleet of aging seaplanes, even if their engines had been upgraded for improved fuel efficiency and maintenance.
With the continuous wear and tear of such operations, the airline had its first serious accident in 1994, when a seaplane sprung a hull leak and sank at Key West, killing the captain and copilot. There were no passengers on board at the time, but the accident highlighted the difficult maintenance challenges that airline faced.
Then on December 19, 2005 — today in aviation history — the airline suffered its worst accident. It would spell the end of the world’s oldest, continuously operating airline. That day, one of the Grumman Mallards suffered a catastrophic inflight failure when the wing separated from the plane during a routine flight from Ft. Lauderdale to Bimini after an unscheduled stop at Watson Island. Shortly after take off to resume the flight to Bimini, the aircraft crashed into Biscayne Bay with the loss of 18 passengers and both pilots. Early on, it became clear that the accident had been caused by structural failure relating to metal fatigue.
Over the following two years, the airline worked with the FAA to correct the metal fatigue and maintenance issues. For eleven months, it ceased operations before restarting in late 2006. However, with the final publication of the NTSB recommendations and final FAA reports pertaining to the causes of the 2005 accident, the airline’s operating certificate was revoked in 2007. Shortly afterward, the airline went into bankruptcy and liquidation.
Today, we can look back and remember Chalks as an airline that preserved the romantic aspects of passenger air travel long after the industry had gone through the jet age revolution, deregulation, cutthroat competition from low cost carriers and a host of other major transitions. Yet Chalks flew above it all somehow, and weathered the turbulence of change to fly on as the last of the old style air carriers. It was, in the end a bit like flying the Concorde, one of those things that remained a “must do” flight for aviation enthusiasts worldwide, a way to enjoy history and flying at the same time.
With the end of Chalks, we can only dream of the days when passengers flew from seaplane docks to Caribbean island resorts. We can imagine what it must have been like to take off and land in the water, to pull up to the beachfront hotel and be welcomed with a tropical rum drink by a smiling resort staff. Chalks was the stuff of Hollywood films and nostalgia. Such memories will always remain, recalling a pleasant, more personal touch in airline service.
Sadly, memories are all there will ever be, for such an airline can never truly begin again in today’s jet age.
To dramatize the difficulties of operating a seaplane airline, one need only look at the specifications and flying hours on the Grumman Mallard that crashed in 2005. The aircraft was certified back in 1944, fully 61 years earlier. It was an aging design with many flaws that reflected the 1940s aviation manufacturing industry. The stresses on the plane, which was itself manufactured in 1947, were overwhelming, even if largely undetectable in the normal maintenance process. Stress cracks were misunderstood and wing rib damage was covered in built up layers of sealant within the wing structure. The airframe had 31,226 flight hours on it since new and had flown 39,743 cycles (the airline term for each take-off, flight and landing). Just how long could such a seaplane fly before something happened? It wasn’t a matter of if, but rather of when.
Finally, while Chalks would have loved to upgrade its fleet to newer passenger certified seaplanes, in fact, it couldn’t. Put simply, there were no approved passenger certified, commercial seaplanes still being manufactured — anywhere in the world! In other words, the airline had no future, no matter what it did because at some point, its airframes would be retired and there would be no other way of continuing operations except with land-planes — a market that was already dominated by low cost discount carriers. Without the unique niche and nostalgia that the seaplanes brought, the airline was doomed.
What other great seaplane airlines have existed in history and which were the greatest? Note that there are several good answers as the field had numerous excellent competitors for many, many years.