Saturday, March 30, 2019

Meigs Field: Gone Under Cover of Night

My father almost never played video games, but was a big fan of Flight Simulator, as he was also an amateur pilot. While I never cared much for planes (I was more interested in trains and automobiles), I enjoyed the game as well, and loved seeing the birds-eye view of the ground from a Cessna (the commercial jets were far too complicated for a six year old). Nowadays, Google Earth offers the same thing, with much simpler controls.

But my favorite thing about the game was that the default airport, and the one we almost always took off from, was Meigs Field in Chicago.

Image: Alex Hauzer via Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields
Seeing my city in all its 32-bit glory was great, and probably is at least partially responsible for my love of digital mapping. But past 2004, the default airport of Flight Simulator was no longer Meigs Field, for a very simple reason.

It no longer existed. Late in the night of March 30, 2003, the airport was razed and large X's were placed on the runways, stranding any flight en-route to the airport, or any airplanes in its hangars.

A 2003 aerial of Meigs' demolition. The "X's" indicate that planes are not allowed to land or take off from the runway. Image: Airfields-Freeman.com
The highly secretive operation kept media, cameras, and other forms of observation away. Why was this done so secretly? Today's blog discusses the life and death of Meigs Field.

BACKGROUND:

The famous 1916 Burnham & Bennett Master Plan of Chicago proposed a lakefront airport on what would be a still unbuilt island, called Northerly Island. Using land reclamation, Chicago built much of what is today's lakefront in the early to mid-20th century. This included Northerly Island, beginning in 1922. Unlike some of Burnham's proposals, such as the Crosstown Expressway, the lakefront airport would become a reality slightly over 30 years later in 1948, being named the Merrill C. Meigs Field in 1950.

1950 Map of Meigs Field. Image: Kevin Walsh via Airfields-Freeman.

Flying farmer Lee Talladay remarked of the airport, ""I didn't expect when I got up & milked the cows at 4 o'clock this morning to be rubbing elbows over lunch with the brass hats from Washington & the tycoons from Chicago's State Street stores. But that just shows what can happen when aviation really comes into its own as it has in this small instance of Chicago's lake front strip,". (Chicago Tribune)

OPERATIONS:

Meigs' main traffic consisted of small corporate jets, helicopters, medical flights, and commuter flights to regional airports in small cities like Champaign, IL; Carbondale, IL, and South Bend, IN. One could also use Meigs to fly to larger Midwestern cities like Minneapolis/St. Paul and Detroit. United Express and Trans World Express used the airport in the 1990's, supplementing their larger United Airlines and Trans Word Airlines counterparts, respectively.

A donated Boeing 727-100 plane used Meigs to land near its current resting place, the Museum of Science and Industry.
Hanging above the Museum's most awesome exhibit, its Model Railroad.
A local chapter of the Tuskeegee Airmen also used the airport to give local children their first taste of avaition, by offering free rides until the closure of the airport.

CLOSURE:
Both Mayors Richard J. Daley and Jane Byrne had proposed the closing of Meigs field, in 1972 and 1980, respectively. Both proposals were quick to be shot down, mostly as a result of what would've been a loss of FAA funding to the city. In 1989, the city accepted FAA funding in exchange for an agreement to lease the airport until 2009. But that was quickly reneged, as in late 1996 the airport closed for the first time. Governor Jim Edgar negotiated a five year reopening of Meigs, which mayor Richard M. Daley accepted.

But the fate of Meigs was sealed only six years later, as Daley ordered the destruction of Meigs on March 30th, 2003, as mentioned earlier. The reason this occurred late in the night was because Daley and the city, did not alert the FAA of the closure, nor did the city notify owners of the airplanes tied down at the airport, of which, sixteen were left stranded.


"One of the last planes to leave Meigs Field takes off in 2003" (Image: Phil Velazquez, Chicago Tribune).


His lame excuses for subverting the rule of law included that it would be "needlessly contentious" and take years in litigation within the courts, as well as that the city was unsafe in the post-9/11 world having an airport so close to downtown. Ultimately, the city was fined for the move, but was not ordered to reopen Meigs. Today, it is a park, and a pavilion for concerts.

Northerly Island, post-Meigs. Image: Lee Hogan

I have no issues with former infrastructure that's no longer necessary being turned into public lands and parks, and actively make the case that rail trails help the rail industry, cities, and non-profits alike. But there is a long process that has to occur before it is indeed accepted that a park or trail is the best use of the land, and Daley's midnight closure of Meigs robbed the aviation industry of their day in court to defend Meigs' existence.

Meigs' former control tower, now a building used by the Chicago Park District. Image: Kevin Raab via Airfields-Freeman.
Even today, the overnight closure of a general aviation facility still makes the news, and is still a political talking point, albeit a small one. Candidate Willie Wilson, who came in 4th place among voters for Chicago Mayor, proposed reopening the facility in his political agenda. Coming in fourth, he did not make the April 2nd runoff election. Undeterred, a push for a museum on the former site of Meigs Field is still a dream of some of the aviation community. Only time will tell how successful they will be.

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