From a strictly Hollywood point of view, the bare outlines of her story would quicken a screenwriter's heart: Former movie star takes over control of airline in the Caribbean after her world-famous pilot husband plunges to his death in a seaplane crash.
For Maureen O'Hara Blair -- still an auburn-haired, green-eyed Irish beauty in a gracefully maturing way -- it has been an occasionally nightmarish, often exhausting, sometimes exhilarating but true story.
"I couldn't let Charlie down," she said.
That was her explanation for why she decided to become president of Antilles Air Boats after Capt. Charles F. Blair, founder and president of one of the country's largest commuter airlines, died Sept. 11, 1978, when a Grumman Goose he was flying crashed near the neighboring island of St. Thomas, killing three passengers as well. Seven others survived.
Though she had taken a somewhat active role before that as a member of the airline's board of directors and one of its vice presidents, it was Blair who ran the day-to-day operation. But with Blair's death, his widow became the majority stockholder in Antilles Air Boats -- an airline that suddenly seemed to be in serious trouble.
It is ironic that Maureen O'Hara married a pilot in the first place.
"I was terrified of flying," she said. "I'll never forget the first time I ever flew in a plane. I was so ill I thought I was going to die. My mother was with me on that flight and so was Lucille Ball. I was so sick that they considered an emergency landing."
She met Charlie Blair in 1947.
"I was making a movie in London called 'Forbidden Street' with Dana Andrews," she recalled. "I still have a photograph of Charlie and me on the set."
Blair, who is in the record books for making the first solo flight over the North Pole, then was a pilot for Pan American Airlines and had gone to visit a friend on the movie set while he was in London on a stopover.
"We became very close friends," she said, noting both were married to other people at the time, but their families -- her family name is Fitz-Simons ("an old, old, old Irish name, though it doesn't sound it") -- became friends over the ensuing years.
"All those years we were good friends," Mrs. Blair said. "And then sometime at the end of 1967 or the beginning of 1968, Charlie landed in Los Angeles and called my brother to have dinner with him, but he said he was too busy and to call Maureen. So he called me and I said I was too busy, too, but he persuaded me to go. I went out and had dinner with him and that was it.
"We started dating, he started calling me every time he landed in the United States, and then we got married. You just don't know what changes in two people's lives or changes about them and their personalities."
When Maureen O'Hara married Charlie Blair in 1968, he was still chief pilot with Pan Am. She proceeded to go on every flight with him, flying all over the world and gradually giving up her movie career.
"He didn't want me to work," she said. "He was too jealous. He wanted me to be with him. And I enjoyed being with him.
"And I'd had it. My God, I'd been working in the theater since I was 6. I was born and raised in the theater. My mother was an opera singer and all my brothers and sisters were in the theater. I'd had it. That's a long career."
But while Charlie Blair was flying Pan Am's jets around the globe, he also was building up his own seaplane operation in the U.S. Virgin Islands -- Antilles Air Boats, which he started in 1964 with one World War II Grumman Goose and five employes.
The airline was born out of frustration -- Charlie Blair's. Exasperated over the ordeal of getting from St. Croix, where he had moved in 1961, to St. Thomas, a mere 40 miles away, Blair decided others might also want an alternative to what was then sporadic air service between out-of-the-way airports.
So with one Goose, he began a down-to-downtown harbor service between Christiansted and Charlotte Amalie.
"After Charlie Blair, people got so spoiled they ran down and hopped on a Goose and were on the next island in 20 minutes and could be back in time for lunch," said a still proud Maureen O'Hara Blair.
Blair's death came at a bad time for the airline. It was the second crash in five months and the second involving fatalities. The first took the lives of the pilot and co-pilot but all seven passengers were saved. It also came in the wake of some minor, but publicized, "incidents," as they say in aviation parlance.
While many mishaps on small airlines often go unnoticed by the general public -- or used to, before commuter airline safety became an issue of widespread concern -- Antilles Air Boats' problems are played out before an audience of thousands: cruise ship visitors, day-trippers from Puerto Rico, long-term vacationers and residents, all of whom can see the busy harbors where the planes land and take off.
In some respects, Blair's death could have been the final blow for his airline.
"I couldn't let Charlie down," his widow said. "The airline had to continue to be a success. I don't think anybody else would have had the same drive or commitment. And there was a point where bank agreements had to be signed. I was the only one who could do that."
So Mrs. Blair became president of Antilles Air Boats, taking over the day-to-day supervision of an airline that saw its daily passenger averages plummet from 850 to about 250 in the immediate aftermath of Blair's death.
Mrs. Blair explains the drop in passengers this way: "When a man is so loved in a community and people associate him so directly with the business he founded and made what it was, naturally when the key figure is lost, you lose a lot of your clients."
But many of the airline's regulars who shared that admiration and affection for Blair felt there was another factor, too. The crash in which he was killed was just one too many in a short period of time. As a result, they started putting up with the inconvenience of driving out to the islands' airports to fly other smaller commuter airlines between St. Croix and St. Thomas, which is Antilles' No. 1 route.
It was a harsh judgment and one Mrs. Blair found unjustified. But it is also one that she has done a great deal to turn around.
"We have one of the finest safety records in the world," she boasted.
Statistics may back her up. Antilles Air Boats has had only four fatal accidents involving 13 deaths in 17 years, according to officials of the airline, and it is coming close to serving its three-millionth passenger.
It has not had a crash since the one in which Blair died. But the National Transportation Safety Board report on that accident gave credence to the concerns of many who initially stopped flying Antilles, though it must be noted that many of them have gone back to flying which is referred to locally as simply "the Goose."
In a scathing indictment of the airline and the Federal Aviation Administration, the NTSB blamed the Sept. 11, 1978, crash on a tactical error in judgment by Blair, a history of poor maintenance practices by the airline and inadequate surveillance by the FAA.
As president of the airline, Blair "violated or condoned violation of the regulations in the interest of company objectives," the NTSB found. "Key company manager, supervisors and licensed employees were aware of the falsification of records and violations of approved maintenance procedures and federal regulations."
Absolutely not so, said Mrs. Blair.
"None of that is true," she declared. "It's all been answered to the NTSB but I will make no answers in the newspaper. I will say, though, that our maintenance has always been top notch and there were no doctored records. That's a misstatement."
As for the FAA, she said, "I don't know of any time the FAA was lax or wasn't on the job. They were there once a week on regular visits, going around and checking."
One of the new president's most important tasks in late 1978 was to get an infusion of money into the airline, although Mrs. Blair admantly maintained that despite the drop in business, "Antilles Air Boats was never, never in the red. It was never in trouble." Nevertheless, she said, "I had to find an investor."
She interviewed seven potential candidates. Of the seven, three were "honorable, honest investors," she said. "The rest were looking for a takeover. They thought they were dealing with a widow who wanted to get out. One suggested that I turn over all shares, they'd provide the financing and maybe five years down the line they'd pay me for my shares. It was incredible."
Meanwhile, passenger figures were beginning to climb again. It took about three months, but after that the daily averages slowly inched upward. That trend is continuing.
Mrs. Blair credits the "tremendous loyalty" and continued dedication of the airline's employes in large part for the turnabout. It was "an emotional thing," she said, "a kind of let's do it for Charlie Blair.' They adored Charlie."
And how was she able to harness this loyalty and dedication and turn a bad situation around?
"I was born in August. If you're born in August, you're bossy, you have drive, you don't like to lose, you do things impulsively. I don't believe in astrology, mind you, but I've found all August people the same."
She chose Resorts International as her investor because Resorts owns Chalk International Airlines, which is a seaplane operation using the same aircraft as Antilles. Resorts also owns gambling casinos in Atlantic City and the Bahamas.
Resorts bought the majority interest in Antilles Air Boats in a stock exchange with Antilles' stockholders. Mrs. Blair was retained as Antilles' president. While she has a role in the corporate decision-making process, she freely admits that Resorts' aviation experts have the final word on operational decisions affecting Antilles.
"As the majority stockholder they have the right to make those decisions," she said. "Before, Charlie and I as the majority stockholders made those decisions. They are exercising that right."
Resorts International also is pouring a lot of money into the Antilles Air Boats operation, though Mrs. Blair did not say how much. But the end results are visible. Antilles has gone from two 15-passenger Grumman Mallards to a fleet of seven, Mrs. Blair said. Of the 16 smaller Gooses in the fleet, five are in various stages of overhaul, two are on the line and others will be overhauled later or possibly sold if the 28-passenger Grumman Albatross is certified for commercial use by the FAA, she said.
Meanwhile, Resorts is "totally financing the certification of the Albatross, which represents millions of dollars and which we never could have done," she added.
"It's been turned around, no question about it," said Capt. Ronald Gillies, a former senior pilot and vice president of the company, before he recently retired.
"Her equipment at this point is in first-class condition," he said. "There's a hell of a lot of time and effort put into the refurbishing of our equipment and the purchase of new equipment. And it's probably not the right thing to say, but we're much more critical of the situation right now."
Gillies declined to be specific, saying the more critical approach "applies to everything. It's no one particular thing. We've become much more conscious of what we do. Maintenance is on schedule. The complacency is gone."
Asked if the FAA has improved its surveillance of Antilles Air Boats' operation, Gillies said the FAA is "watching everything bug-eyed now because things haven't gone too well lately" for the agency.
"But I don't know how much the FAA is watching more closely," he added.
And does Mrs. Blair keep a close eye on what's going on?
"You better believe it," said Gillies.
Statistics bear out the turnaround. Mrs. Blair was reluctant at first to give them out. "I thought this was supposed to be an interview with me," she said. "I don't want any downbeat article." Sales Manager Julie Rasmussen pegged the latest daily passenger averages at 625 to 650 -- still not back to the 850 average before Blair's death but getting there. Daily flights are up to 70 -- not quite the 100 plus of before, but a far cry from the 35 or 50 of late 1978.
"We had a lot more aircraft flying then," Rasmussen said of the higher figures before the September 1978 crash. "We'd be carrying more people now if we had more aircraft, but we're getting more on the line all the time. Meanwhile, we're turning away many passengers daily."
Rasmussen is one of four top officials who manage Antilles' daily operations. Two of the four are women, a fact Mrs. Blair enjoys pointing out. "Antilles Air Boats has always had women in top positions, even with Charlie," she said. "Of course, Charlie loved women. That sounds terrible, but I mean he recognized women for their abilities as well as for their beauty and comfort to men."
Sipping tea at her lovely but not lavish home on a hill overlooking the Christiansted harbor, Mrs. Blair grimaced.
"Lemon," she said disdainfully. "But I gave up milk for Lent. I gave up milk, any kind of alcohol and any kind of fattening foods -- just about everything bad for you."
But the night before Lent began, she confessed, she went to Baskin-Robbins and ordered a triple chocolate sundae with hot fudge and chocolate syrup.
"It was gorgeous," she said with a grin. "It was sinful, it was so good. Charlie was a chocoholic too," and she launched into a story of how he often brought chocolate cookies into the house when she was trying top diet.
She is at a crossroads now.
"I feel now that I'd like not to do so much," she said. "I'd like to have more time to play golf, to visit and travel -- I have an enormous family, you know -- and to be more active physically. To be active physically, you can't sit behind a desk all day, you know."
What about returning to films?
"Let me be very honest," she said. "In the picture business I was always the star. If I couldn't go back in the same position, I would never take a secondary seat and I admit it. Isn't it awful? I could never be No. 2. That's August for you, I guess."
She will "never leave Antilles Air Boats," she said, "but I might retire to a less active position, like chairman of the board of something emeritus, because there will come a time when I'll be to old to be doing all these things every day."
She will be 56 in August. But also in the back of her mind is the fact that she had uterine cancer surgery in May 1978, and comes from what she calls "a cancer family."
She was sitting in a wheelchair in the hall of a Los Angeles hospital where she had gone for her regular checkup when her doctor told her she had cancer.
"I remember thinking to myself, "Well, what am I going to do, get up and stamp my foot or say, so what, let's go?' I said, 'Let's go.'
"When it first happens, you think, 'Oh, God, why me?' You think you're going to stew and fret about it endlessly, but you don't. You forget. All's well now, but you never know."
She is not at all sure what her future holds.
"I do think about it," she said. "I think, 'What the hell am I going to do with myself?' I've taken the path into aviation. Would I want to stay in aviation? Would I want to go back to the theater? And I love to write, always have. I write a column every month for the Virgin Islander magazine (she is publisher) and I enjoy that.
"I am at a crossroads. I have so many ways to go. But if I don't know yet which one to follow, why worry about it?"