Chalk's Has Long, Colorful History

Chalk's Ocean Airways has a long, colorful history of flying seaplanes from Florida to the Bahamas with passengers ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Al Capone.

The airline founded as Chalk's Flying Service in 1919 by Arthur "Pappy" Chalk, an auto mechanic from Paducah, Ky., says it never had a fatal crash involving passengers until Tuesday, when 19 people died after a twin-engine Grumman G-73T Turbine Mallard seaplane crashed shortly after takeoff. Another person was missing.

The only crash involving fatalities occurred March 18, 1994, when two pilots died after their seaplane crashed near Key West.

The small airline thrived after its founding during Prohibition, taking bootleggers, their customers and even Customs agents to Bimini.

"Rum-running was a source of bountiful business for Chalk's and the company did not discriminate among passengers, carrying not only smugglers, but also the lawmen chasing them," according to a company history on Chalk's Web site.

According to the Web site of FlightSafe Consultants' Airline Safety, Chalk's has had no previous fatal accidents involving passengers. The National Transportation Safety Board database also indicates no fatal accidents for Chalk's involving passengers since at least 1982, when the database was begun.

The most famous regular passenger was Hemingway, who flew frequently to Bimini to go big-game fishing. Other famous passengers over the years included Errol Flynn, Judy Garland, Howard Hughes and Capone.

One of its airplanes was hijacked to Cuba in 1974. Since then, the company has had a policy of not carrying enough fuel to reach Havana.

According to the company Web site, Chalk's was bought by Florida businessman Jim Confalone in 1999, was rechristened Chalk's Ocean Airways and was in the midst of an "extensive refurbishment" of its airline fleet.