Chalk’s Ocean Airways, flying since 1919, suffered its first passenger fatalities on Dec. 19 when one of its Grumman G-73T Turbo-Mallards crashed in Miami’s Government Cut shortly after takeoff.
The plane was less than 300 feet off the water when, according to witnesses, the right wing burst into flame and separated from the fuselage. The pilots and 18 passengers, including three infants, perished. Most of the passengers were from the Bahamian island of Bimini and had been in Miami Christmas shopping, said Roger Nair, Chalk’s general manager. “We are a close-knit, family airline, and most of our passengers have been our customers for an extended period of time,” he said.
On Dec. 21, Acting NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker announced that a fatigue crack had been found in the recovered wing, in the area where separation occurred. He said that the crack could have been detected only during “a very serious type of inspection. This is an extremely difficult crack to find.” NTSB inspectors were learning more each day, as we went to press on Dec. 28.
The crack appeared in only one of the Mallard’s eight wing spars, prompting Rosenker to comment on Dec. 23 that “Accidents are more than just one thing,” as he emphasized that other factors may actually have caused the crash. An FBI spokesman commented that there was no immediate indication of terrorism or other criminal involvement.
Michele Marks, the Mallard’s captain, had “an unblemished flying record,” Nair said, quoting an FAA spokesman. She had flown for Chalk’s for about three years, he said, adding that “she loved seaplanes.”
The Mallard was built in 1947 and later converted from piston to turboprop power. Rosenker commented that there is no reason to think that Chalk’s Turbo-Mallard fleet is anything but airworthy, pointing to the company’s superb safety record. “Had they known that there was a fatigue crack…they would have repaired it and we wouldn’t be here today,” he said. Chalk’s flies four other Turbo-Mallards, which they grounded voluntarily after the crash. The NTSB and FAA will determine whether the fatigue problem exists in other G-73s, 59 of which were built through 1950, Rosenker said.
The airline has suffered only two other fatalities in its long history, when two pilots were killed in a March 18, 1994, crash at Key West. No passengers were aboard. The cause was failure by the pilots to pump the bilges, resulting in excessive aft cg, according to the NTSB.
Chalk’s Ocean Airways is the oldest airline in the world. Chalk’s also appears to be the world’s only surviving flying boat airline. It was founded by Arthur B. “Pappy” Chalk, who began operations in 1917 with ad hoc charter flights. Scheduled service from Miami’s Watson Island to Bimini started in February 1919. Chalk was involved in the airline’s daily operations until he retired in 1975. He died two years later at the age of 88.