Tous les avions des Antilles - hier et aujourd'hui.

Bienvenue à bord. Images, histoires et bons plans de l'aviation aux Antilles

samedi 4 mars 2006

In a topic like this, one touches on history. Now, there is a funny thing about history. One can do research and believe they have the "final answer." One can search the internet and books galore and rest believing one has the ultimate answer.

But then you publish your findings and someone asks an innocent question. I received an e-mail with the subject line reading "KLM - Oldest airline? Chalk's?" Susan Stabley, a reporter for The South Florida Business Journal, was the author and she asked: "What about Chalk's? The seaplanes started in 1919."

Now, in my internet and hard copy investigation the following had been told as "fact:"

KLM was documented as the oldest airline, founded on 7 October 1919 and beginning service 17 May 1920.

Avianca of Columbia is listed as the oldest in the Americas and second oldest in the world.

Mexicana, the Mexican air carrier, is often listed as the oldest in North America.

Northwest is listed as the oldest US air carrier. This will require further research since today's Northwest is comprised of several airlines through mergers over the years, including North Central, Southern, and Republic among others.

So, with the e-mail began a search to find the answer. And there is indeed a Chalk's--officially it's called Chalk's Ocean Airways.

Chalk's Ocean Airways operates between Florida and the Bahama islands of Bimini and Paradise Island. Now here some things get interesting. Ms. Stabley had given me a date of 1919, the same date as found on Chalk's web site. But some sources give the date as 1917. An inquiry to Chalk's brought this response from Albert Vitale of Chalk's: "Chalk's Ocean Airways is the world's oldest continuously operating airline. Chalks began initial operations in 1917 as an ad hoc charter operator but regular service commenced in February of 1919 from Downtown Miami (Watson Island) to Bimini (Alicetown, Bahamas)."

Thus Chalk's began service before KLM was even formed!

One can look at the location of the airline and wonder if there is a connection to an earlier airline featured here as the first ever airline in the world. And you would guess right. Arthur B. Chalk, the founder of Chalk's Ocean Airways, had received flying lessons from noted barnstormer Tony Janus. Mr. Janus was the pilot for the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line.

Arthur B. Chalk was an automobile mechanic in Paducah, Kentucky. In 1911 Chalk was introduced to Tony Janus, who subsequently gave Mr. Chalk flying lessons in exchange for repairs on his aircraft. Mr. Chalk soon followed the path of many early aviation pioneers in barnstorming around the south. In 1917 he took up residence in Miami, at that time a fledgling city.

Arthur Chalk served in the Air Corps during World War One, creating a disruption in service. In 1919, after the war ended, Mr. Chalk returned to Miami and began operations as Chalk's Flying Service.

Prohibition was still in effect at the time. Besides ferrying passengers, Chalk's did a bountiful business smuggling liquor between the Bahamas and the U.S. The company did not discriminate among passengers. Chalk's carried both smugglers and the lawmen chasing them.

Business boomed and Chalk's grew. In 1926 the company built a terminal on a newly created landfill island named Watson Island. This island, between downtown Miami and the popular South Beach tourist district, is adjacent to the Port of Miami, the world's busiest cruise port. Chalk's seaplanes shared the deep-water channel with oceangoing freighters and passenger liners from throughout the world. (Unfortunately U.S. authorities have prevented this operation at the moment due to the security issues and Chalk's operates from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport.)

Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but Chalk's passengers remained colorful. The airline became established in the region and carried famous passengers such as Errol Flynn, Judy Garland, Howard Hughes, Al Capone, and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, like many others, discovered that Bimini has some of the best big game fishing in the world and Chalk's featured scheduled service to that island. In 1933 ousted Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado fled Havana on Chalk's under a rain of gunfire.

Chalk also used the versatility of the seaplanes for the public good. After the devastating hurricane of 1926, Chalk's seaplanes assisted in search and rescue in the Florida Keys. In World War II Chalk donated his planes and service to the Civil Air Patrol, flew hundreds of anti-submarine missions off the coast of Florida, and assisted the Navy in training seaplane pilots.

Chalk was involved in the daily operations of the airline until retirement in 1975. Arthur Chalk passed away in 1977 at the age of 88.

Resorts International purchased the airline in the 1980's. Resorts International is a hotel and casino property development company with extensive holdings in the Bahamas. Thus the acquisition of Chalk's made sense. James Crosby, the president of Resorts International, began two significant initiatives to upgrade the airline's fleet. The first was modernizing the company's Grumman G-73 Mallard aircraft. Contracted to Frakes Aviation, this included converting the 10-passenger lounge configurations to airline seating for 17 passengers. Secondly, the company successfully certified the Grumman HU-16 Albatross, originally built for military service, as the G-111 30-seat passenger transport aircraft. The Albatrosses enabled Chalk's to usher in a new standard of scheduled seaplane service, with major-airline amenities such as flight attendants, in-flight snack service and lavatories. The addition of the 30 passenger flying boats allowed Chalk's to become the primary carrier to Paradise Island in the Bahamas.

Resorts International sold the airline when it disposed of its Bahamas hotel properties. Several South Florida investors bought Chalk's and operated for a time in conjunction with the restarted Pan Am under the Pan Am Air Bridge name. Through a bankruptcy filing in early 1999 Chalk's reorganized. Chalk's recapitalized in mid-July 1999 when bought by Florida businessman, Jim Confalone. The airline was re-branded as Chalk's Ocean Airways.

Chalks Ocean Airways is the oldest airline not only in the United States and in North America, but also the world! Chalk's is also the only surviving Flying Boat Airline. These flying boats are sixty year old veterans but are in everyday service. Chalk's currently has three operating Grumman Mallards built between 1938 and 1945 that were re-engined with Pratt and Whitney PT-6-34As and interiors were changed from the lounge seating for 10 to airline seating for 17 passengers. Two more Mallards are in the hangar being restored. Chalk's is also working on restoring an Albatross and have four further airframes which could be made airworthy.

Chalk's still operates between Miami and Bimini as well as providing service to Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and the only scheduled service to Paradise Island/Atlantis/Downtown Nassau.

Chalk's hopes to in the near future begin a program to re-engine it's G-111 fleet that is currently retired and restore the type to commercial service. Chalk's has 26 G-111s that are currently fitted with Pratt and Whitney Radial Wasp engines and would like to convert them to PW 118A turbine engines.

Thus I stand corrected on the matter of the oldest airline in the world. Thanks go to Susan Stabley, of The South Florida Business Journal, for bringing this airline to my attention, and to Albert Vitale of Chalk's, for providing more details. Mr. Vitale also shares this information about Chalk's: "For the record Chalk's has operated as Pan Am Airbridge and as US Air Express as codeshare agreements. Pan Am II used the Chalks code Op and IATA (International Air Transport Association) number to resume operations until it obtained its own code and number."