Crash of an Icon

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

The Chalk's Grumman Mallard plane had a cameo in the show's pilot episode. As Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight" throbbed in the background, cops Crockett and Tubbs drove like hell through Miami streets in a black Ferrari. The pair arrived on Watson Island as the song ended only to see their quarry, a smug trafficker, board the seaplane. The propeller whirred to life; the drug dealer smiled. Then the plane's tail and the name appeared across the screen: Chalk's.

An icon was born.

One day after the crash, Kalia Keefe, 7, waved goodbye to one of the last Chalk’s flights to leave Bimini
David Zentz
One day after the crash, Kalia Keefe, 7, waved goodbye to one of the last Chalk’s flights to leave Bimini
The crash happened over Government Cut on South Beach, in view of surfers, where wreckage is pulled from the water days after the crash.
The crash happened over Government Cut on South Beach, in view of surfers, where wreckage is pulled from the water days after the crash.

All the glitzy publicity couldn't save the airline. In 1999, after struggling for years, the company finally ended up in bankruptcy court.

In August of that year Miami businessman Jim Confalone bought Chalk's for $925,000. He sold his oceanfront home in Maine to finance the purchase.

At the time the company was operating with just two leased seaplanes and 35 employees. Still it was the only commercial airline in the world that employed Mallards as passenger aircraft — all the others were used privately or for sightseeing. Confalone immediately bought five more Mallard seaplanes; he wanted the company to remain true to its roots. "I feel I've been entrusted to take care of this thing," he told South Florida newspapers. "These large seaplanes landing in Miami are what the cable cars are to San Francisco in terms of a tourist attraction."

Confalone seemed to be the right man for the job. After serving as an airplane technician in the navy, he arrived in Miami in 1965 with $50 in his pocket. After flying 26 years for Eastern Airlines, he owned a ski resort in Maine, car dealerships in Miami, and assorted other businesses in South Florida.

Two years later Chalk's was still operating under marginal circumstances. Only three planes were working. The airline had just four stops: Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Paradise Island, and Bimini. Though Confalone had big plans, including travel to Japan and Havana, at the turn of the millennium his most important customers remained the Bimini residents who used the seaplanes as a lifeline to the outside world.

Bimini seems exotic — a British outpost in the middle of the Atlantic — but it is really a small town of 1600 people who are generally related by blood, marriage, or both. Most of the locals live in a settlement called Alice Town on North Bimini. (Sparsely populated South Bimini is actually separated by a 150-yard channel). Locals' houses, a few stores, and a handful of hotels line the one main road through the island. These days there are few jobs outside of tourism and during any given year, residents scrape to get by. Many young people leave.

Everything on the island — milk, mufflers, or stuffed animals — is expensive because it must be imported; shipping costs can increase prices tenfold. Chalk's helped keep costs down, islanders insist. "The only thing Chalk's wouldn't bring on the plane was a car," says Bimini resident Shannon Bullard, a man in his forties with a wide smile and animated eyes. "As long as guys could lift it and get it in the door, they would fly it to Bimini."

Bullard, a charter boat captain and amateur pilot, said that he would give Chalk's pilots ten dollars in the morning to go to the hardware store in Florida for a needed boat part. That evening the pilot would hand him the part and exact change.

September 11 changed all that. United States Customs cracked down on cargo, and immigration agents became more strict. In 2004 the City of Miami and Confalone clashed over the Watson Island terminal. Confalone said that it was difficult to take off and land the planes because of all the nearby helicopters. The city was concerned about security at the nearby port. So Chalk's relocated its headquarters and terminal to Fort Lauderdale.

Chalk's planes hadn't had many problems before Monday, December 19, 2005, but there had been a few. In 1994 two pilots didn't drain the bilge in Key West. The plane was too heavy and crashed. Both pilots were killed; those were the first fatalities in the company's 80-year history. Five years later on a windy day, a plane made a hard landing in rough waters in Nassau and injured three passengers from Florida.

Though no one expected a repeat of those incidents on that December day fifteen months ago, the weather was a little strange. Thick and unsual fog covered the Fort Lauderdale airport where Genevieve Ellis awaited her 8:40 a.m. flight home. She eyed the tiny, 58-year-old white seaplane with purple trim.

Genevieve was a patient woman, not given to complaints or flashes of anger, so it is unlikely that she was annoyed by the delay. She probably sat in a chair to wait quietly, and maybe pulled out a book to pass the time.

At around 1:30 p.m. the passengers were given the go-ahead to board. Folks stuffed duffel bags and boxes of Christmas toys into the cargo hold. Genevieve boarded along with fifteen other passengers and the plane's two pilots. There was no assigned seating, but Genevieve sat next to her sister, Salome Rolle, who had gone with her to the graduation and on the shopping trip. The pair sat together on the right side of the plane.

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