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Seaplane crash resonates with boaters

Chalk’s Ocean Airways has been shuttling cruisers and sport fishermen to the islands for generations

Chalk’s Ocean Airways has been shuttling cruisers and sport fishermen to the islands for generations

The crash of a Chalk’s Ocean Airways seaplane in Miami’s Government Cut before Christmas sent a chill through many boaters who often fly the tiny — and historic — airline between Florida and the Bahamas.

“I flew Chalk’s for about 35 years,” says Al Behrendt, organizer of the Bahamas Billfish Championship. “For the longest period of time, it was the only available — and reliable — service to Bimini.”

The Bimini-bound Grumman G-73T Turbine Mallard had just taken off from the Chalk’s seaplane terminal at Watson Island and had started its ascent from Government Cut — its runway — when it went down in a ball of flame off the jetty at South Beach. All 20 aboard died, including the pilot, a crewman, 15 ticketed passengers and three infants. Video footage showed a piece of a wing or engine separating from the aircraft during its fiery descent into 35 feet of water.

Among those who died on Flight 101 was Don Smith, longtime dockmaster at the Bimini Big Game Resort and Marina, along with his 18-month-old grandson, Jervis, who was returning to the island with him.

Smith was a Big Game employee for 30 years and the marina’s dockmaster for half that time. “There is probably no one more widely known to boating visitors of Bimini than Don,” owners and management of the Big Game resort said in a statement. “His friendliness, warmth, sense of humor, and welcoming demeanor were a big part of why so many people viewed Bimini and the Big Game Resort as their home away from home. It will be difficult to replace Don here at ‘The Club.’ ”

The downed seaplane was 58 years old. It could take off and land on land or sea with its hull-shaped fuselage, and was one of five Mallards in Chalk’s fleet. Chalk’s seaplanes fly from Miami and Fort Lauderdale to Bimini and ParadiseIsland in the Bahamas.

When Behrendt’s billfish series ran tournaments out of the Bimini Big Game Club, captains would bring the big sportfishing yachts to the island by water, and boat owners and their guests would fly in by the hundreds on Chalk’s, which scheduled extra flights for tournaments.

“Chalk’s was a vital part of tournament life when there were a lot of tournaments in Bimini,” Behrendt says. The billfish series hasn’t hosted a competition in Bimini for a half-dozen years because of the decline in billfishing there, but Behrendt says many who own getaway homes on the island keep their boats there and use Chalk’s to fly down on weekends or for vacations to go fishing, diving and cruising.

After the crash, Chalk’s voluntarily suspended all its flights to check its aircraft, leaving Christmas visitors scrambling for other travel arrangements. Chalk’s operates the only scheduled airline service to Bimini, but several charter airlines sell seats on flights that technically are unscheduled but run regularly to the island. The Federal Aviation Administration is requiring inspections of all seaplanes now after discovery of stress fractures in the Chalk plane’s right wing frame. Additional cracks were later noticed in the same area on the left wing.

Started in 1919 as Chalk’s Flying Service, Chalk’s claims to be the world’s oldest scheduled airline service. Its founder, Arthur B. “Pappy” Chalk, an auto mechanic from Paducah, Ky., learned to fly while servicing the aircraft of aviation pioneer, seaplane pilot and barnstormer Tony Janus. Chalk himself became a barnstormer, flew in the Army Air Corps in World War I, and started his airline in Miami after leaving the service. Chalk donated his seaplanes to search the Florida Keys for victims of the 1926 hurricane, and again gave his planes for public service in the Civil Air Patrol in World War II. The current generation of Chalk seaplanes went into service after the war. Chalk’s has been through a series of owners since its founder’s death in 1977. The current owner is Miami businessman James Confalone.

Behrendt says he and many other longtime boaters to the Bahamas have fond memories of Chalk’s — its seaplanes in particular — and would hate to see them grounded.

“There’s a little bit of charm and a lot of uniqueness in taking a seaplane to the islands,” he says. “There’s a bit of history, too, that would vanish. I’d hate to see that.”

Those wishing to make donations for all of the families of Bimini’s Flight 101 victims may make checks payable to the Bimini Flight 101 Victims Fund. Checks can be mailed care of The Bimini Big Game Resort & Marina, P.O. Box 741330, Boynton Beach, FL33474.