Meigs, the Mayor and his Midnight Muscle

My first introduction to Chicago politics occurred during a huge snowstorm in 1979. To my bewilderment, none of the streets in our neighborhood, save one, got plowed by the city. It turned out that the district in which I lived had not voted "appropriately" in the last election. The retribution for this bad behavior was clear, but what explained the one plowed street? City trucks would come into our area with their plows raised, get to the street in question, lower their plows and clean that one street. It turned out that on that street lived a political ally of the mayor.

Heavy equipment is still used as an implement of raw power by the mayor of Chicago, judging from Richard Daley's decision to send city machinery onto Meigs' Field in the dark of night on March 31st to rip up the one runway and strand several general aviation aircraft. The mayor hid behind the hysterical veil of anti-terrorism as his excuse for the destruction of a city-owned airport.

Chicago is a beautiful city. It was originally planned by Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett in 1909 and it has grown to grandeur in less than a hundred years. Mayor Daley's father, Mayor Daley, was a well known old style patronage politician, and I knew young Richard slightly when I lived there during the late 1970s. (Our children went to the same school.) The original plans that made the city such a spectacular urban landscape included lots of public land on the lakefront. Many other cities have waterfront available only to the rich or to heavy industry but not to the people. Chicago has been the exception, even featuring a public airport located right on the lake and right downtown, one of America's most spectacular runways.

My ancient logbook records my first Meigs landing in 1973 in a Beechcraft Musketeer. I'd flown to Chicago Midway with some friends, and for the return trip to Saint Louis I decided to reposition the airplane to Meigs. Although the trip home was flown at about 60 knots over the ground, the takeoff next to those impressive skyscrapers was majestic, and the homeward-bound headwinds gave me ample time to savor the visual memory of our spectacular departure.

I next arrived at Meigs on an autumn day of crystal clarity in a Piper Arrow. My wife sat in the back with our new son, and my copilot was a very beautiful three year old with curly blonde locks. As I turned westbound over the lake toward the towering buildings on the left base for 18, I became aware of an insistent tugging at my sleeve. I lifted the right earpiece of my headset only to receive this instruction from the copilot: "Dad, don't hit any of those buildings!"

I've been to Meigs in a Cessna P210 with gusty crosswinds and at night in a Cessna 340 with the lights of the city looming like a wall over the very dark waters of Lake Michigan. A few years ago we transported an assortment of junk to our youngest daughter who had set up residence in the Windy City. We landed our handsome Cheyenne there, unloaded a few old lamps, some badly used salad bowls, a decrepit vacuum cleaner and our dog and took a cab to the very elegant Four Seasons Hotel, looking like the Beverly Hillbillies but enjoying every minute of the immediate downtown access afforded by Meigs' great location.

Every three years for the past 30, I have found myself at a convention at the McCormick Place, Chicago's huge convention center that affords a great view of Lake Michigan and Meigs Field. Often I'd take a break from the convention and stand at the large windows that survey the runway and watch all manner of aircraft deal with crosswinds and overwater approaches. I've always enjoyed the stolen moments of connection with aviation made possible by the propitious alignment of building and airfield.

This history of affection for an airport left me feeling bereft and angry when I saw pictures of Meigs with large "Xs" carved in the runway. The airport has been threatened by perennial Mayor Daley for years, but a recent agreed extension of the airport's life until 2006 left me confident that I could make a few more landings there before the end came, even if the "Friends of Meigs," the collection of enthusiasts dedicated to the airport's preservation, couldn't find a way to ultimately save it.

It turned out that less than two weeks after the vandalism my wife and I had reason to fly to Meigs. We were then faced with a dilemma about which airport to choose as our destination; sort of an "alternate" required by politics rather than weather. We were going to Chicago to attend a memorial service for my first boss and to spend the weekend with his successor and his wife at their getaway house on Lake Michigan just east of the Indiana border in the state of Michigan. After a survey of fuel prices and cab fares to downtown from various airports, and mindful of our subsequent plans to end up around the bottom of the lake in Michigan, we picked Gary, Indiana.

So on a Friday afternoon in April, I dialed up DUAT, accepted the suggested Jet route via Atlanta, Louisville and Boiler, shook my head over the 60 knots on the nose over Georgia and Tennessee at 22,000 feet, and hit the "submit" button. Believe it or not, this was my first experience with filing via DUAT. I'd gotten an access code in the early '90s but had never used it. I'm not the slickest computer operator on the planet, and I always felt safer talking to somebody real at the Flight Service Station, especially about weather. But this was a clear day from Tampa to Gary according to The Weather Channel, and I had just visited the DUAT booth at Sun 'n Fun in Lakeland, so I decided to give it a try.

Two things about DUAT were amazing and immediately apparent when I printed out the proposed route and the weather. One was the quick speed with which the flight was planned and the flight time calculated from the winds aloft. The other was the reams of paper stacking up in the printer, even for the "abbreviated briefing," which detailed the weather and notams along the route. Next time I'm going to print the former and just read the latter.

Our flight time to Gary was calculated to be four hours and 34 minutes, and our fuel burn was slated to be 286 gallons. Our average groundspeed was predicted to be 191 knots over the 871 nautical mile distance. Our routing was slightly different in the end, but the headwinds were very close to predicted, and at one point east of Atlanta we were doing 170 knots groundspeed with no hope of making the trip nonstop. We hung in there, though, thinking about Meigs and wondering if we'd ever land again at the venerable field that opened in 1948. Then the winds eased and we started down toward the shores of Lake Michigan, searching for GYY amongst a covey of oil storage tanks on a clear spring day. Once the runways were in sight, we were offered any one of our choice, so I picked 30. We were on exactly four hours and 31 minutes after takeoff, just three minutes faster than predicted. We also took on 285 gallons of fuel, one less than the DUAT program called for. These are margins of error of one percent or less and impressed me mightily.

Gary turned out to be a great choice for us for several reasons. Jet-A was $2.30 a gallon, compared to $3.65 at Midway. A cab to downtown Chicago from Gary cost $70 and takes about 35 minutes; from Midway it costs $25 and can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic. The round-trip cab fare difference is $90, easily made up by the $385 saved in fuel costs.

We chose to rent a car from Enterprise, located right next door to Gary Jet Service. A compact was available at $16 a day, a great deal. The folks at Gary were as nice as they could be, and we'll go back there again next time we have similar needs. It sure isn't Meigs, though, and the scenery driving in from Gary couldn't be more distinct from the towering glass skyscrapers and the bobbing sailboats and yachts that backdrop Meigs. It is a dismal trek, marred by refineries and pockmarked by steel fabrication plants and rust.

We had a great weekend, remembering a remarkable man, seeing old friends and then escaping to the eastern shore of Lake Michigan for some barbecue and comfort with just the four of us. The next morning I filed again with DUAT over my friend's modem for the trip home. This time our time en route was calculated to be three hours and 50 minutes with an average groundspeed of 236 knots over 903 miles. Fuel consumption was predicted at 242 gallons. The "automatic jet route" produced direct GIPPER intersection; direct DARBS, the intersection that starts the arrival for Tampa. Fat chance, I thought, we'll never get such direct routing.

Wrong again. After waiting 10 minutes for our clearance to reach the very friendly tower at Gary (the controller said, "Hey, if it were up to me we'd have you home by now"), we took off and sustained what seemed like an endless climb out to the northeast, only to be cleared direct GIPPER, direct Tampa. Amazing, I thought.

It was another clear day and my thoughts turned back to Meigs, the "Friends of Meigs" and the constant forces of economics that have threatened the airport for many years. The real estate upon which the airport sits is just so valuable that it stirs the envy and ire of those who feel that the land is being used by the rich and the famous to the exclusion of the ordinary citizen (or, maybe, the real estate developers). Access to its runway is a loss to any airplane that could fit in there and to any owner or passenger who had business in Chicago. The cowardly midnight destructive actions of the city make for an outrage that might not have otherwise been generated.

We sailed along at 260 knots with these thoughts ricocheting around our minds until just over Atlanta when the Atlanta center came on and said, "58 Whiskey, I've got an amendment to your routing." I replied by saying, "I'll bet this involves Seminole (the VOR near Tallahassee), HEVVN and DARBS." He said, "Well, we don't know much about HEVVN down here, but you're right about the other two, cleared direct Seminole, DARBS arrival."

We did that, landed at 3:42 (eight minutes early) and took on 232 gallons. All in all, an amazing introduction to DUAT and a very satisfactory solution to the crisis caused by a mayor and his bulldozers. Although we worked around the destroyed runway, we did not overcome the scar left on our flying hearts. Meigs, Burke Lakefront in Cleveland, Albert Whitted here in St. Petersburg and Lakefront in New Orleans make up four of the most picturesque and useful landing strips anywhere in the world. For the moment, we're down to just three. Let's hope it is just for the moment.

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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