Meigs Field Mayhem
Merrill C. Meigs Field Airport FAA designated as IATA: CGX, ICAO: KCGX was a single hard surface strip airport that operated from December 1948 until March 2003. It was built on Northerly Island, a man made peninsula which was also the site of the 1933–1934 Century of Progress in Chicago.
The airfield was named for Merrill C. Meigs, the publisher of the Chicago Herald and Examiner and an ardent aviation advocate. Meigs Field opened on December 10, 1948, and became the country’s busiest single strip airport by mid 1950s.
The latest tower at Meigs Field was built in 1952 and the terminal was dedicated in 1961. The airport finally closed on Sunday, March 31, 2003, when Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley ordered city crews to bulldoze the runway at night while passenger planes were in the process of landing.
Northerly Island, owned by the Chicago Park District, is the only lakefront structure to be built based on Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago. The island was to be populated by trees and grass for the public enjoyment by all. However, drafted less than six years after the Wright brothers’ historic flight in 1903, the 1909 plan didn’t envision any airports for Chicago.
The airport was a familiar sight on the downtown lakefront. It was also well known as the default takeoff field in many early versions of the popular Microsoft Flight Simulator software program. It is an airport that is featured in Microsoft’s Midtown Madness computer game (1999) and Reflections’ Driver 2 video game, which are based in Chicago. The airport area is also the central location of the short documentary film Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames.
The Main Terminal Building was operated by the Chicago Department of Aviation and contained waiting areas as well as office and counter space. The runway at Meigs Field was nearly 3,900 x 150 ft. additionally; there were four public Helio-pads at the south end, near McCormick Place. At the north end is the Adler Planetarium.
Since the Chicago Plan of 1909 had no provision for air service, Chicago’s first airplane flight took place in 1910 in Grant Park, adjacent to Northerly Island, with an international aeronautical exhibition at the same location in 1911. Regular air mail service to Grant Park began in Grant Park was unsuitable for the city’s growing aviation needs by 1918.
After Daniel Burnham died in 1912, Edward H. Bennett, co-author of the Plan of Chicago, wrote that a lakefront location would be most suitable for an airport serving the central business district in 1916. Later by 1920 the people of Chicago approved a bond referendum to fund a landfill construction a peninsula, and in 1922 construction began. That same year Mayor William Hale Thompson recommended locating the downtown airport there. A few years later the Chicago South Park Commission voted for it as well. In 1928, the Chicago Association of Commerce, the business community supported the idea for the lakefront airport. But the Great Depression put numerous the plans on hold. However, construction continued on the peninsula itself continued, and the 1933 World’s Fair occupied the newly completed peninsula. In the 1930s the Chicago City Council and Illinois State Legislature passed resolutions to create the airport, but both the poor economy and World War II again delayed plans.
Almost immediately after World War II, in 1946, airport construction began. That same year the Illinois state legislature deeded 24 acres of adjacent lake bottom to Chicago for additional landfill, to make the property large enough for a suitable runway. Aviation technology had advanced rapidly during World War II. The airport opened on December 10, 1948, in a grand ceremony.
On June 30, 1950, the airport was officially renamed Merrill C. Meigs Field. Various improvements took place over the years, including the 1952 opening of an air traffic control tower, the 1961 opening of a new terminal building (dedicated by Richard J. Daley), runway lengthening, and the late 1990s charting of two FAA instrument approaches allowing landings in poor weather conditions. By the 1970s Meigs Field became a critical facility for aero medical transport of patients and transplant organs to downtown hospitals as medical transportation technology modernized.
Meigs Field also provided commuter airline service to the public, peaking in the late 1980s as Mayor Richard M. Daley took office. During the 1960s to 1980s, typical destinations were Springfield and Carbondale, and typical aircraft were the Beechcraft Model 99 and Piper PA-31 Navajo. In the late 1970s Air Illinois operated the 44-passenger turboprop Hawker Siddeley HS 748 at Meigs, the largest aircraft to use it on a regular basis.
Numerous VIPs used the airport to maintain security and to avoid inconveniencing the Chicago traveling public, including President John F. Kennedy. In a common pattern, Air Force One would land at a larger area airport, and the President would take a helicopter to Meigs Field to avoid the complications of a Secret Service escort via Chicago’s expressways.
On October 15, 1992 a Boeing 727 that was donated from United Airlines to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry made its final landing at Meigs, on its way to be transported to the museum to become an exhibit. This was notable because Meigs’ runway was somewhat shorter than others that this type of aircraft normally uses. Still, the lightly loaded jet did not require the entire runway. The 727 was then barged off the airport, prepared for exhibit and further barged to the museum.
Starting in the early 1990s, the Chicago-area Tuskegee Airmen, Inc provided free airplane rides every month and aviation education to Chicago youth at Meigs Field. Thousands of children took their first airplane rides there until 2003.
In 1994, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced plans to close the airport and build a park in its place on Northerly Island. Northerly Island where the airport was located was owned by the Chicago Park District, which refused to renew the airport lease in 1996. The city briefly closed the airport from the expiration of the lease in October 1996 through February 1997 when pressure from the state legislature persuaded them to reopen the airport.
In 2001, a compromise was reached between Chicago, the State of Illinois, and others to keep the airport open for the next twenty-five years. However, the federal legislation component of the deal did not pass the United States Senate.
In a controversial move on the night of Sunday, March 30, 2003, (Have you ever noticed that the those always trying to get away with something unpopular always do it under the cover of darkness?) Mayor Daley ordered city crews to destroy the runway immediately, in the middle of the night, They bulldozed large X shaped gouges into the runway surface: (The international symbol for Runway Closure)…
Mayor Daley failed to provide the required notice to the Federal Aviation Administration or the owners of airplanes tied down at the field never did get notification, and as a result sixteen planes were left stranded at an airport with no operating runway, and an inbound flight had to be diverted by Air Traffic Control, because of equipment scattered on the runway. The stranded aircraft were later allowed to depart from Meigs on the 3,000 foot taxiway however.
“To do this any other way would have been needlessly contentious,” Daley explained at a news conference Monday morning, March 31. Mayor Daley defended his actions, described as “appalling” by general aviation interest groups, by claiming it would save the City of Chicago the effort of further court battles before the airport could close. He claimed that safety concerns required the closure, due to the post September 11 risk of terrorist controlled aircraft attacking the downtown waterfront near Meigs Field. In reality, closing the airport made the airspace less restrictive. When the airport was open, downtown Chicago was within Meigs Field’s Class D airspace, requiring two-way radio communication with the tower. The buildings in downtown Chicago are now in Class E/G airspace, which allows any airplane to legally fly as close as 1,000 feet from these buildings with no radio communication at all.
What I read in this is Mayor Daley had no use for due process for his issues but others need to follow the rules. That is sort of an Al Capone type of Chicago we knew ages ago, in my opinion. This writer is surly glad he doesn’t live there, under the Daley steam roller machine.
“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,” the Chicago Tribune editorialized. “The signature act of Richard Daley’s 22 years in office was the midnight bulldozing of Meigs Field,” according to Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn. “He ruined Meigs because he wanted to, because he could,” columnist John Kass wrote of Daley in the Chicago Tribune.
On July 28, 2003, an aircraft flying to Oshkosh, Wisconsin from Maine made an emergency landing on the grass next to the demolished Meigs Field runway. Mayor Daley accused the pilot of intentionally landing in order to “embarrass” him, despite the FAA’s statement that the pilot “did the correct thing” in landing the plane at Meigs. After effecting electrical repairs, the plane safely took off and continued to Oshkosh.
Interest groups, led by the Friends of Meigs Field, attempted to use the courts to reopen Meigs Field over the following months, but because the airport was owned by the City of Chicago and had paid back its federal aviation grants, the courts ruled that Chicago was allowed to close the field. The FAA fined the city US$33,000 for closing an airport with a charted instrument approach without giving the required 30-day notice. This was the maximum fine the law allowed at the time. In the aftermath, the “Meigs Legacy provision” was passed into law, increasing the maximum fine per day from US$1,100 to US$10,000.
On September 17, 2006, the city dropped all legal appeals and agreed to pay the $33,000 fine as well as repay $1 million in misappropriated FAA Airport Improvement Program funds that it used to destroy the airfield and build Northerly Island Park.
By August 2003, construction crews had finished the demolition of Meigs Field. Northerly Island is now a park that features prairie grasses and strolling paths. In 2005, the 7,500 seat Charter One Pavilion opened on the site, which hosts music concerts in the summer. The island also has a modest beach, named 12th Street Beach.
Other Chicagoans had a different vision for the lakefront area. After the 2003 closure, the Friends of Meigs Field introduced a new plan, “Parks and Planes”, which promoted the idea of an aviation museum, small operating runway, and park land on the property. This plan suggested that Chicago could qualify for federal funds earmarked for airport property acquisition, to purchase many more acres of parkland in Chicago’s neighborhoods and to improve the Chicago Park District’s maintenance budget.
The FAA maintains a Remote Communications Outlet on the property, for two-way radio communications between the Kankakee Flight Service Station and nearby aircraft.