Crash of an Icon

Once a lifeline and a symbol, Chalk's delivered death

Crash of an Icon
Brian Stauffer
Felix Ellis is alone now. His wife, Genevieve, isn't around to make his favorite bread pudding. She's not there to call him in the morning or to put a blanket on his lap so he won't catch a chill from the unseasonably cold wind that whips through the couple's tiny, unheated home on the island of Bimini in the Bahamas.

Genevieve isn't there to call him by his childhood nickname — Cornbread. Nor can she hear him tell the story of the name's origin: He sold his mother's pastries in the streets as a boy. Felix and Genevieve were married for 40 years, and she knew all of his stories.

Felix loved Genevieve because, in his words, she was "good and quiet." Felix, who is 72 years old and retired, is pretty quiet himself. He speaks in a lilting Bahamian patois; "this" and "that" are pronounced "dis" and "dat." He is a burly man, with fading brown skin, few bottom teeth, and a silvery, stubbly beard. He used to be a strapping construction worker — Felix built his home with his own hands — but arthritis in his right leg has all but idled him. These days he spends hours in a chair by the front door of the house, with a TV remote control and a telephone in arm's reach. A walker stands nearby. The small house is jammed with furniture, and its walls are lined with hastily placed photographs. Felix keeps the lights low at night when he watches TV.

Baggage tags from Bimini
Tamara Lush
Baggage tags from Bimini
After landing in Bimini, Chalk's seaplanes taxied past the squat, two-story building that served as a terminal.
Tamara Lush
After landing in Bimini, Chalk's seaplanes taxied past the squat, two-story building that served as a terminal.

Genevieve, a stout mother of five who always dressed in colorful, sensible matching skirts and jackets, would have brought order to the house and to Felix.

The last time he talked to her was December 18, 2005. He was in Nassau for a doctor's visit. She was in North Carolina at her niece's college graduation. The 64-year-old was also shopping in Fort Lauderdale for some last-minute Christmas bargains for the grandkids. She called that Sunday night to say she had reserved a seat on the first Chalk's seaplane leaving Fort Lauderdale in the morning.

"I'll see you in Nassau, Cornbread," she said. "Good night."

"Good night," he replied.

Chalk's is an enduring symbol of Miami, one filled with ingenuity and intrigue, with glamour and entrepreneurial spirit. The airline's early days are legendary.

In 1911 a Kentucky auto mechanic named Arthur "Pappy" Chalk stopped tinkering with cars long enough to help out a man named Tony Jannus. A renowned pilot of the day, Jannus had flown his seaplane north from Florida and made an unscheduled stop in Paducah, near the Illinois line. In exchange for the repairs Jannus gave Chalk flying lessons.

Soon Chalk was hooked on seaplanes. In 1917 — a little more than a dozen years after the Wright brothers' historic first flight at Kitty Hawk — he moved to Miami. He was 28 years old.

Two years later he opened a seaplane charter company. Chalk charged five dollars for sightseeing tours and $15 for lessons in flying the three-seat Stinson Voyager. Passengers lined up at Chalk's terminal, which was an umbrella next to the dock of the Royal Palm Hotel on Biscayne Bay, at the end of Flagler Street.

A few years went by and Chalk bought a bigger plane. He capitalized on Prohibition by flying to Bimini, a tiny island just 50 miles away. The passengers were fun-loving, wealthy folks who wanted to drink hooch and arrange for illegal shipments to the United States.

In those early days Chalk was the company's lone pilot, often flying up to twelve hours a day. Dozens of Bimini residents greeted the plane upon its arrival; the islanders would wade into the electric-blue sea and carry the passengers, piggyback, to dry land.

In 1932 Chalk married a woman named Lillie Mae who helped him run the business. Together they branched out into more charter flights. The next year he flew to Cuba to pick up ousted dictator Gerardo Machado and ferried him to safety in Miami — but not before dodging a volley of bullets in Havana.

The following twenty years were good for the company. Ernest Hemingway, Al Capone, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall were all Chalk's seaplane passengers. In 1940 Chalk built a terminal building out of coral rock on Watson Island, a newly developed landfill. He bought more seaplanes and flew reconnaissance missions during World War II.

Lillie Mae died in 1964. Chalk retired from flying with a perfect record: 16,800 hours flown with no fatalities.

For the next three-and-a-half decades, the company soared, failed, soared again, and found itself on the verge of bankruptcy. It changed hands countless times; owners included companies headed by Merv Griffin and Donald Trump. Planes were upgraded, refurbished, and put into storage. A few new routes, such as one to Key West, were added, then removed. Bimini and Watson Island were the only consistent destinations.

In 1984 the airline received worldwide exposure from an unlikely source. A new cop drama named Miami Vice highlighted the city's most glamorous assets in its opening credits: Bentleys, breasts, beaches, and a gleaming white Chalk's seaplane gliding over impossibly blue water. Even though the plane was 40-odd years old, it shone as if it were brand new.

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