30 March 2013


Imagine this ~ in 1948 a single-strip airport is opened for service.  Not just any airport.  Meigs Field (see above, click to enlarge) was built on a man-made peninsula running parallel to downtown Chicago's lakefront.  The airfield was connected to the mainland by a causeway at its northern end, and its harbor sheltered a busy marina.  Within only a few years, Meigs became indispensable for travel to and from downtown. Commuter airlines, business aviation, search and rescue, helicopters, private aircraft, and air transport of patients to downtown hospitals made Meigs one of the busiest small airports in the nation.  It was highly valued as a reliever satellite for Chicago's giant O'Hare International Airport, providing quick and convenient access to and from downtown.  When you build a mile of road, you can travel a mile. But when you build a mile of runway, you can travel anywhere in the world.

Meigs was also the default airport for pilots and aviation enthusiasts who learned and practiced flight maneuvers using Microsoft Flight Simulator on their computers, until 2004.  When you fired up MSFS, the first thing you was was the Chicago skyline, viewed from Runway 36.

Ten years ago tonight, all that came to an abrupt halt.  At 1:30 a.m. on March 31, 2001, upon illegal orders from Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, city bulldozers destroyed the runway at Meigs by carving deep X's into the runway, making it impossible to use (see center image).  Daly acted without prior notice, and without authorization from the FAA.  He'd planned for years to replace the thriving airport with a waterfront park and business complex.

True to Chicago's tradition of corrupt politics, rather than going through legal channels (and likely facing stiff opposition from the aviation community and the tens of thousands of people who used Meigs each year), Daley summarily ordered that the airport be rendered useless, in the dead of night ~ stranding a number of aircraft which were parked at the field, and forcing a number of inbound aircraft to divert to other airports.  His actions were described as appalling by aviation interests and by the FAA, but the damage had been done.

The Chicago Tribune editorialized ~ "The issue is Daley's increasingly authoritarian style that brooks no disagreements, legal challenges, negotiations, compromise, or any of that messy give-and-take normally associated with democratic government .... He ruined Meigs because he wanted to, because he could."

The penalty for Daley's depredation was minimal ~ the city paid $33,000 to the FAA for closing the airfield without notice, and $1 million in misappropriated FAA Airport Improvement Program funds (Daley diverted the $1 million from AIP funds intended for O'Hare).  No one was tried or sent to prison, no one received more than a slap on the wrist.

And an airport jewel was shattered.

Today the peninsula is in a state of neglect (see before-and-after image below).  A modest, uninspired park with walking paths exists  The former air traffic control tower is in disrepair.  The runway and taxiways are gone.  And a legend lives on, in older flight simulator software and in the long memories of aviators everywhere.

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