FLYING Magazine

Where were you on March 31, 2003, when the aviation world woke up to the news that Merrill C. Meigs Field in Chicago had been destroyed? 

I was at Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo in Lakeland, Florida, working as an aviation reporter. Early that morning I started getting voicemails and emails telling me about the large X’s carved into the runway, rendering it unusable and trapping a handful of aircraft based there.

One of the first to see the damage was a pilot who had planned to land at Meigs but had to divert to another location. He reported the damage to a surprised air traffic controller who, like himself, was not aware that Meigs had been destroyed.

The abrupt closure took airport employees by surprise as well. One of the Meigs tower controllers told a local news outlet that he learned he was out of a job while driving into work and heard a local radio station reporting on the damaged runway.

READ MORE: ‘Remember Meigs Field’

At Sun ’n Fun, which is the second-largest aviation convention in the U.S., the destruction was talked about somberly. How could this have happened? 

We quickly learned that the heavy equipment operators that came to the airport under the cloak of darkness and dug those massive ditches into the runway were acting on orders from then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Daley was not the first Chicago politician to propose the closure of Meigs Field.

In the 1980s, Mayor Jane Byrne suggested closing the airport and turning the property into a park. Local pilots, aviation advocacy groups, and businesses that appreciated the convenience of an airport so close to downtown objected to the idea.

In addition, the FAA noted that the airport had received agency grants, and each grant carried an assurance that it would remain open a set amount of time—usually 25 years—so that the grants can be amortized. At the time, the airport had most recently accepted a grant in 1976. In theory, the earliest the airport could be closed was 2001.

Meigs Field History

The airport was built shortly after World War II on Northerly Island, a human-made peninsula minutes from downtown Chicago. The airport had a single runway measuring 3,900 feet by 150 feet. In 1952, the airport was named after Merrill C. Meigs, publisher of the Chicago Herald-Examiner newspaper and an aviation enthusiast. 

The land, which is owned by the Chicago Park District, was leased for the airport. The location being so close to downtown Chicago made it popular for businesses, medical flights, and for a short time, commercial aviation. It was so busy that a control tower and two instrument approaches were added. By the late 1990s, commercial aviation had given way to general aviation and medevac flights. Meigs was also popular in the virtual aviation world, as it was the default airport for Microsoft Flight Simulator.

In 1994, Daley revived the idea of closing the airport and redeveloping its 75 acres into a park. The FAA reminded the city that it had accepted FAA funding for improvements and by doing so agreed to grant assurances that stipulated the airport remain open.

READ MORE: City Council Votes To Close Santa Monica Airport

Daley continued to push for closure, and in 1996, the Chicago Park District refused to renew the lease for the airport. Large X’s were painted on the runway identifying the airport as closed. 

In response, the Illinois  Legislature and the FAA strongly opposed the action, and the combined pressure resulted in the reopening of the airport. The painted X’s were removed and the airport resumed operations. The understanding was that the facility would remain open until at least 2026.

Aviation organizations loudly defended the airport and its convenience for downtown businesses, yet the threat of closure remained. The pilots attending the Meet the Administrator public forums at EAA AirVenture held up large red-and-white signs that read “SAVE MEIGS FIELD” to get their point across.

[Credit: FLYING archives]

Aviation groups such as the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) continued to watch the airport. The FAA repeatedly noted that it  is in the business of protecting airports, not closing them, reminding the city of Chicago that the grant assurances stipulated the facility stay open. In addition, FAA regulations state that closure of an airport that includes an instrument approach—Meigs had two—requires a 30 days notice prior to shutdown, which was never given.

Aviation advocacy groups were quick to respond to the airport’s destruction. Phil Boyer, AOPA’s president at the time, called out Daley for what Boyer called a lack of honor: “The sneaky way he did this shows that he knows it was wrong.”

EAA president Tom Poberezny was attending Sun ’n Fun when he heard about Meigs Field. Within two weeks, the organization became part of a GA coalition that lobbied the U.S. Senate to support the National Aviation Capacity Expansion Act, which called for the codifying of the historical political agreement between then-Illinois Governor George Ryan and Daley to preserve Meigs Field for another 25 years.

Meanwhile, Daley defended his actions, claiming the destruction was done “due to safety concerns,” citing a potential terrorist attack similar to 9/11 when terrorists used aircraft to attack the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia. This story was quickly discounted when the Department of Homeland Security stated that the airport’s proximity to downtown Chicago was not a risk and that no threats had been made against the city.

Daley then told multiple media outlets that the abrupt closure was done as a means to prevent lengthy and costly litigation as various entities fought to keep the airport open.

For several months, pilot organizations and aviation groups lobbied for the repair of the runway and the reopening of Meigs Field, but it was not to be.

Several weeks after the forced closure, which became known as “Daley’s Midnight Raid” in aviation circles, the FAA gave permission for the 16 aircraft left stranded to depart using the taxiway as a runway.

That was not the last time aircraft used the facility, however.

In July 2003 a pilot on the way to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, experienced mechanical trouble and made an emergency landing in the grass next to the remains of the Meigs runway. Daley accused the pilot of intentionally landing there as a publicity stunt to “embarrass him.” The pilot maintained that he had engine trouble, and the grass infield was the most suitable place for an emergency landing. The FAA sided with the pilot’s interpretation.

In August 2003, the demolition of the remaining infrastructure of Meigs Field began. Today, it is a park.

Even in the virtual world, Meigs in MSFS is gone—lost to the ages.

A Cautionary Tale

In 2005, the FAA fined Chicago $33,000 for closing an airport with a charted instrument approach without giving the required 30-day notice. At the time, the maximum fine the agency could levy by law was $1,100 per day. The city of Chicago appealed the fine, and aviation advocacy groups and elected representatives were quick to note its amount. Some $33,000 was “pocket change”’ to many municipalities that wanted to close the local airport.

In response, the Meigs Legacy Provision was passed as part of an FAA reauthorization bill. The provision increased the maximum fine per day from $1,100 to $10,000 per day for illegal airport closures.

In September 2006, the city dropped all legal appeals and agreed to pay the $33,000 fine, as well as to repay the FAA for the $1 million of Airport Improvement Program (AIP_ funds that were used to demolish the airport and build Northerly Island Park.

Meigs Field’s saga serves as a warning whenever other airports are threatened. The message is clear: It could happen here.

Remember Meigs Field!” has become the battle cry of endangered airports.

Santa Monica Airport (KSMO) and Reid-Hillview Airport (KRHV)—both in California—come to mind. Both airports date to the early days of aviation. When they were built, they were in farm fields away from the city. Today, they are surrounded by industrial and residential development. And both are facing threats of closure from their elected city and county officials.

The post The Cautionary Tale of the Destruction of Meigs Field appeared first on FLYING Magazine.

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