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Terminal of the Airport


Merrill C. Meigs Field Airport , was a single strip airport that operated from December 1948 until March 2003. It was built on Northerly Island, the man-made peninsula that was also the site of the 1933-1934 Century of Progressmarker in Chicago.

The airport opened on December 10, 1948, and became the country's busiest single-strip airport by 1955. The latest air traffic tower was built in 1952 and the terminal was dedicated in 1961. The airfield was named for Merrill C. Meigs, publisher of the Chicago Herald and Examiner and an aviation booster.

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. In the image to the right, Northerly Island forms the southern border of Chicago Harbor (now Monroe Harbor). As indicated by the color green on the original plan, 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, the 1909 plan did not 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 Tenmarker 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 feet (1,200 m) long and 150 feet (46 m) wide. In addition, there were four public helicopter pads at the south end of the runway, near McCormick Placemarker. The north end of the runway was near the Adler Planetariummarker.

History

Construction

While the 1909 Plan of Chicago had no provision for air service, technological breakthroughs would quickly render the Plan at least partially obsolete. Chicago's first airplane flight took place in 1910 in Grant Parkmarker, adjacent to Northerly Island, with an international aeronautical exhibition at the same location in 1911. Then, in 1918, regular air mail service to Grant Park began. However, Grant Park was unsuitable for the city's growing aviation needs.

By 1916, 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. (Daniel Burnham died in 1912.) In 1920, Chicagoans approved a bond referendum to pay for landfill construction of the 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 in agreement. In 1928, the Chicago Association of Commerce, representing the business community, also advocated for the lakefront airport.

The Great Depression put numerous civic plans on hold, including the airport. Construction continued on the peninsula itself, with the 1933 World's Fair occupying the just-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 intervened.

Operation

Almost immediately after World War II, in 1946, airport construction began. That same year the Illinois state legislature deeded 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 aeromedical 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 Beech 99 and Piper 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 Industrymarker 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 all of the 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.

With the events of September 11, 2001, all civilian airports including Meigs Field temporarily closed.

Closure

Tower of the Airport


In 1994, 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 March 30, 2003, Mayor Daley ordered private crews to destroy the runway in the middle of the night, bulldozing large X-shaped gouges into the runway surface. The required notice was not given to the Federal Aviation Administration or the owners of airplanes tied down at the field, and as a result sixteen planes were left stranded at an airport with no operating runway, and an incoming flight was diverted. The stranded aircraft were later allowed to depart from Meigs' 3,000 foot (914 m) taxiway.

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 from these buildings with no radio communication at all.

Editorials in the Chicago Tribune pointed out that "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." Daley himself played the populist against the general aviation pilots who had previously used the airport because of its ideal location.

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 the Northerly Island park.

Airlines that served Meigs Field



Northerly Island

Charter One Pavilion Sign, photo taken January 10, 2007
12th Street Beach House


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 Pavilionmarker opened on the site, which hosts music concerts in the summer. In February 2006, the city announced plans to open a heliport on the island. The island also has a modest beach, named 12th Street Beach (beach house pictured).

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 (RCO) on the property, for two-way radio communications between the Kankakee Flight Service Station and nearby aircraft. This transmission facility (122.15 MHz) provides unique coverage for the busy lakefront flight corridor.

In Popular Culture

In the game Midtown Madness released by Microsoft in 1999, the player is free to drive around a computer-generated version of the Meigs field.

References

  1. Midtown Madness for Windows
  2. X-ed Out - Mayor Daley puts "X" on Chicago's Meigs Field
  3. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States
  4. AOPA Online: Meigs Field - one year later
  5. AOPA Online: Illinois Legislature votes to take over Meigs Airport
  6. AOPA Online: Stranded Meigs pilots can go NOW!
  7. abc7chicago.com: ABC7 Chicago WLS-TV 7
  8. [1], Federal Aviation Regulations, Part 91.129
  9. [2] Federal Aviation Regulations, Part 91.119
  10. AOPA Online: Chicago newspapers, others join AOPA in condemning Meigs closure
  11. Aero-News Network: The Aviation and Aerospace World's Daily/Real-Time News and Information Service
  12. City Of Chicago Finally Caves Over Illegal Meigs Destruction
  13. Parks and Planes: A Vision for Meigs Field and Northerly Island
  14. Chapter 4. Air Traffic Control Section 1. Services Available to Pilots


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