Reflections on a Dark Night in Chicago
By Steve Whitney, President, Friends of Meigs Field
The calls started around midnight.
Five years ago, on a Sunday night at the end of March, I started getting phone calls from local TV newsrooms.
“Is there some kind of construction going on at Meigs Field?” was the message. “No? Well, you might want to get down there, because something is going on.”
My wife, my dad, and my friend Rachel Goodstein, who had replaced me as president of the Friends of Meigs Field a year earlier, raced to the lakefront airport, only to find the road from Lake Shore Drive blocked by armed police. “Can’t go down there.”
We could see bright lights across the harbor, and large clouds of dust. Sounds of hammering and heavy equipment floated across the water.
We tried another route, walking furtively along the breakwater, around the Planetarium, to approach from the northeast. What we saw broke our hearts. Enormous earth-moving equipment was rooting at the runway. Hours later, at dawn, aerial shots of the destruction showed the damage. Enormous X’s carved in the runway. Over a dozen aircraft trapped on the ramp. No notice to the FAA or the flying public. How could this have happened?
Later that morning, Mayor Daley—who had coveted Meigs for a new park in his neighborhood for over a decade—held a news conference. “Terrorism, ya know?” was the message. Somehow, by destroying a single general aviation airport out of thousands across the country, we were supposed to be safer from attack. This despite the fact that private aircraft have never been used for terrorist attack; that light planes make poor payload vehicles; that all of the 9/11 planes departed airports hundreds of miles from their targets.
It was illegal, unethical and dangerous. The FAA, for good reason, requires 30 days’ notice of airport closures, to give time for public comment and warn pilots. An aircraft on its way to Meigs that morning (and there were some), low on fuel, could have been a disaster. Worst of all, it violated an agreement hammered out in 2005 to keep Meigs open until 2024. True, it was only a handshake with then-governor Ryan, but the entire aviation community had rejoiced at the news.
I love Meigs Field. Not because it served me personally, though it did. Not because it was a gateway for commerce to Chicago. Not even because it’s been home to the first flights of over 6,000 Chicago children through the Young Eagles program. I love it for the same reason Daniel Burnham advocated boating facilities for the lakefront: “The movement among the…small craft…lend[s] interest to the Lake front…at the same time imparting life to the otherwise monotonous stretch of water.”
In other words, it was cool.
Part of the reason I chose to put myself through flight training in high school was the inspiring sight of planes rising from the lakefront toward exotic imaginary destinations.
So I, and many like me, took it personally when the field was demolished after so much hard work and playing by the rules. Losing fair and square is one thing. Being cheated is something else.
After the destruction, we had some temporary success in delaying further demolition, but ultimately it came down to this: did we want to spend our dwindling resources fighting against something good—parks, like airports, are public assets—or creating something even better. So under Ms. Goodstein’s leadership, we developed a proposal—“Parks and Planes”—to reopen Meigs as a revitalized airport, the centerpiece of a combination airport, park, aviation museum for the Museum Campus.
We were very excited about the prospect, and it even won an award. In the short term, it provided park facilities at least as attractive as the empty field there today, plus fun things to do with your kids and grandkids every week. It retained the benefits of an operating airport: economic activity, congestion relief for O’Hare and Midway, search, rescue, and medevac for the lakefront and downtown hospitals. A major feature was the funding: It could virtually all be paid for by FAA funds, with over $100 million left over to improve parks across the city.
Meigs supporters dominated most of the public input sessions held by the Park District, supporting the Parks and Planes plan. To our knowledge, nothing has ever come out of those “hearings”. Not that it matters; there is virtually no money to do anything special with the Meigs land.
And what have we lost?
It appears that the vast majority of Meigs traffic (over 7/8 business- or convention-related), has disappeared. A comparison of FAA control tower operations for Chicago show that the City’s “market share” of the U.S. general and corporate aviation market has dropped from 0.45% of operations in 1996, when Meigs’ closure was first announced, to 0.20% today.
The traffic has not gone to outlying airports as hoped by the City. Instead, the market share of all greater Chicagoland airports (adding Gary, DuPage, Aurora, Chicago Executive formerly Palwaukee, and Waukegan), has simultaneously fallen from 2.1% to 1.3%.
And the economic value of that traffic was enormous. Our organization had collected letters and surveys indicating over $490 million in annual spending in Chicago.
The costs to taxpayers have been enormous, too. Add it in your head: The value of the original publicly-funded Meigs assets (runway, etc.) The cost of the demolition ($2.7 million). The legal cost ($600,000) of fighting the FAA fine, plus the cost of the fine when the action was settled ($30,000). The cost of an unnecessary duplicate air/sea rescue station at 95th St. ($8 million). All at a time when property taxes are soaring and the economy is hitting the skids.
The worst cost may be in human lives. Speculation is always dangerous, but a 2006 drowning on the north lakefront raises the question of whether the shorter helicopter distance from Meigs instead of 95th St. might have saved lives. Likewise, without Meigs there is no public heliport for transporting patients to downtown hospitals. Children’s Memorial is now struggling to put a helipad in crowded Streeterville.
There is a name for “the unlawful use…of force or violence…against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies…for ideological or political reasons.” (American Heritage Dictionary). It’s called “terrorism.”
The destruction of Meigs Field: Still the only U.S. infrastructure destroyed by terrorism since September 11, 2001.
It was a sad day in Chicago.
Copyright © 1995-current year