Relaxing on this Sunday morning I was minding my own business when a string of tweets showed up in my timeline focused on Chalk’s Ocean Air. The memories came flooding back in a hurry. It was early 2005 when a group of friends suggested that we take a dive trip together. We reasonably quickly settled on Bimini as a destination. Sure, the diving was reasonably crap, but there were parts of the trip which were completely awesome, mostly focused around the nightlife and the flying. One of the bars burned down since our visit and Chalk’s Ocean Air is out of business now, too, but the memories are still quite strong.
Chalk’s operated a fleet of flying boats, mostly the Grumman Mallard, between Ft. Lauderdale, Miami and the Bahamas. We booked separate tickets to get to Ft. Lauderdale and then the Chalk’s flights between Ft. Lauderdale and Bimini. When we showed up at the airport in Ft. Lauderdale that morning, however, we were greeted with some unfortunate news: the plane was "not available" for our flight. There was another flight booked to Nassau which was also canceled; those passengers were accommodated on a Continental Express flight. Our trip to Bimini, however, had no alternate commercial service. Instead we ended up on a chartered Cessna 402 for the hop over to the island.
That flight was fun enough and the immigration process in Bimini was quite entertaining (the pilot had to pay for the immigration officers to show up so there was a cash transaction while we were standing there) but the real flying fun was the return trip a few days later when the Mallard took flight.
The Mallard was a type designed in the 40s and the plane I flew was more than 50 years old. It was also very close to the end of the line for the Mallard and for Chalk’s; the carrier ceased operations in December of 2005 (more on that below).
The airport in Bimini was basically a small waiting room with a verandah and a few benches for people to hang out at while waiting for the flight. It was separated from the "tarmac" area by Main Street. As planes arrived and departed they actually have to stop traffic (not that there is much in Bimini) for the plane to get from the water to the parking position and back.
We got to the airport early enough that we got to see an earlier flight go out and watch the crazy scene which is a plane becoming a boat and then managing to take off from the bay. Very cool, indeed.
Not all of the process is incredibly smooth, though I suppose that is somewhat to be expected when the runway you’re dealing with is actually the ocean.
Finally it was our turn. We loaded up into the Mallard and strapped in. Looking out the window and seeing water just a few inches below was definitely a surreal experience.
And then they cranked up the engines and we made our run across the small harbor at Bimini, taking flight and leaving the vacation behind.
And then, after a relatively short flight, we pulled in to the gate at the Ft. Lauderdale airport. We were back in the real world and the vacation was pretty much over. A few months later, on December 19, 2005, flight 101 en route from Miami to Bimini lost a wing due to metal fatigue and the plane crashed. All 20 people on board were killed. This was the end of the road for Chalk’s. The planes were, by nearly all accounts, ancient. Spare parts hadn’t been manufactured in decades and there was no actual maintenance manual for the plane and, because of its type and age, it was exempted from a number of FAA structural rules. Sadly, it was essentially just a matter of time until they started dropping out of the sky.
Up until that point Chalk’s claimed the title of the oldest continually operating airline in the world, having been in operation since 1917. After the accident they attempted to continue operations with wet-leased props but it was not meant to be. The NTSB released their report in 2007 and the company ceased all operations at that time.
I knew the planes were old and probably not long for the world when I took that trip to Bimini. That they couldn’t get one operational on our original scheduled flight was also a bad sign. I was fortunate to be able to fly on the Grumman Mallard shortly before it was finally grounded for the last time. The plane I flew, N142PA, was deregistered by the FAA a couple years later; it is no longer licensed to fly.