Miami’s Island-Hopping Flying Boats: Indispensable Birds of Paradise : Aviation: For more than 76 years, the fleet of Chalk’s seaplanes have been a glamorous, and practical, link between Florida and Bahamian and Caribbean islands.
The morning newspaper arrives with a splash.
Each day, a small crowd gathers at the seaplane ramp, one of the most popular spots on the tiny island of North Bimini. They’re rewarded with the sight of one of Chalk’s International Airlines’ graceful flying boats swooping from the sky into the harbor.
The converted Grumman Mallard skis across the shallow water, turns and roars up the cobbled ramp, delivering visitors, business people--and a bundle of newspapers from Miami, 50 miles away, for a local hotel.
For more than 76 years, Chalk’s familiar seaplanes, trimmed in turquoise and gold, have buzzed over South Florida and the Caribbean, helping to create an ambience of glamour and adventure.
But the vintage airline isn’t just another tourist attraction. Chalk’s is a leader in seaplane conversion, maintenance and training, as well as a busy commuter carrier.
Before taking her first seaplane ride, Maxine Balli of Coral Gables, Fla., gazed at one of the seaplanes parked on the Miami island the company has used as a terminal since 1920.
“It looks brand new!” she exclaimed. “I can’t believe it’s from the ‘40s.
“I remember the movies and people getting in them, and for a kid from the Midwest who’d never even seen the ocean. . . .”
Balli saw the ocean in a new way aboard the Sunset Express. All Chalk’s planes in regular service have names, and each interior is decorated with original tropical-themed artwork.
The 17-seater bumped down the old ramp into Government Cut, the busy waterway between the Port of Miami and Miami Beach.
The plane’s landing gear lifted and its engines thundered, kicking spray over the windows as it zoomed down the channel and eased into the air, giving passengers a bird’s-eye view of the port and South Beach, its famous Art Deco buildings glowing in the morning sun.
After skimming along below the clouds for 20 minutes, the Mallard, which can operate in just three feet of water, splashed down in Bimini Harbor.
The newspapers were for the Compleat Angler Hotel. Its manager, Ossie Brown, boarded the Sunset Express in Alice Town for a business trip to Nassau. He said he also takes a seaplane to Miami every couple of weeks for supplies.
Chalk’s runs scheduled service from Ft. Lauderdale and Miami to Bimini and Paradise Island, off Nassau in the Bahamas. Charters are available to the Bahamas, Florida Keys and Caribbean.
Fares to Bimini range from $142 round trip, and to Paradise Island from $175 round trip, plus tax. An air tour of Miami is $39.50.
“I don’t know what I would do without Chalk’s,” Brown said. “Some people talk about the cost, but to me the convenience overrules all of that--and the novelty.”
Dive operator Bill Keefe, also headed to Nassau on business, books tour packages through the airline. He says his guests love it.
“Sometimes that’s the single best part of the trip,” he said. “The diving’s good, but there’s very few places in the world where you can fly in a seaplane.”
A. B. Chalk started his airline in 1919, under a beach umbrella at a downtown Miami hotel. He sold flying lessons, air tours of Miami and trips to Bimini, the nearest Bahamian island to the United States.
The following year, Prohibition started and Chalk did well by not taking sides. He ferried to Bimini both rum-runners checking their stocks and revenuers checking on their prey, but he never carried the illegal liquor.
In 1933, Chalk got a call from Cuba: President-turned-dictator Gerardo Machado needed to get away after an army revolt. He escaped to Miami in a hail of bullets; the passenger manifest listed his occupation as “retired.”
Over the years, many famous people have flown Chalk’s, including Errol Flynn, Lana Turner, Howard Hughes, Al Capone and Ernest Hemingway, a regular at the Compleat Angler.
Nearly 40 years after the Machado caper, a Chalk’s seaplane again was the scene of gunfire when two men demanded to go to Cuba. The pilot refused; he was shot and tossed off the plane. The co-pilot then flew the hijackers to the island and returned safely the next day. The pilot survived the shooting.
In 1977, A. B. Chalk died at age 88 from a fall suffered while pruning a tree. But his namesake carrier continued to fly high--until the 1980s.
During that decade, Chalk’s passed through four owners, including Donald Trump and Merv Griffin, when each held Resorts International. But Resorts had financial trouble, thanks in part to the cost of converting to passenger use the former military seaplanes flown by Chalk’s to replace an earlier fleet of aging aircraft.
“They were in bankruptcy and were trying to sell off assets,” said Bill Jones, director of operations. The company had arranged for larger aircraft to bring visitors to its gambling playground on Paradise Island.
“So then Chalk’s was expendable,” he said.
But South Floridians love their seaplanes like San Franciscans love their cable cars. After much hue and cry, a buyer was found: United Capital Corp.
Its principals are interested in aviation and have nurtured the company. In 1993, Chalk’s was licensed as an Federal Aviation Administration repair station. Its workers help seaplane owners from around the world.
The airline also has been granted a license to update G-111 aircraft, known originally as the Grumman Albatross when built for military use. Chalk’s owns 12 that have been refitted for passengers.
“Some of them we hope to operate ourselves someday, and others we’ll market out and place with other operators,” said Lonny McClung, director of aircraft development.
The airline plans to modernize these larger sisters of the Mallards with turbine engines, making them suitable for uses such as reconnaissance, law enforcement, fishing surveillance, or search and rescue.
“In Vietnam and Korea, a lot of fliers’ lives were saved with these planes,” Jones said.
They are literally flying boats--not airplanes stuck on floats--with hulls designed so they raise up like racing boats just before takeoff.
Chalk’s seaplanes have appeared on television shows such as “Miami Vice,” in movies, music videos and commercials. They’re also popular with fashion photographers.
Klaus Dieter Martin, 31, a pilot for the German airline LTU, took his family to Bimini for the day.
“I just actually wanted to fly in the plane,” he said. He and his 4-year-old son, Pascal, watched as the Sunset Express rolled into the water for another takeoff.
The Mallard’s engines growled as it headed for the sea, thrilling Pascal. The two gazed after it until it was out of sight.
“Beauty--she really is,” Martin said.