The Day Meigs Field Died

Airfield’s destruction testament to the scourge of absolute power

Meigs Field on the morning of the destruction. Current Mayor Rahm Immanuel ratified Daley's actions as recently as last fall when he announced new plans for the Northerly Island.

Meigs Field on the morning of the destruction. Current Mayor Rahm Immanuel ratified Daley’s actions as recently as last fall when he announced new plans for  Northerly Island. Courtesy: Chicago Sun-Times

Northerly Island is a north-south peninsula off the Chicago lakefront just south of Navy Pier. From 1948 to 2003 it was the location of Meigs Field a 4,000 foot runway and airport that served downtown Chicago.

For a city like Chicago, Meigs was a jewel of the lakefront, a unique feature that also had key functionality for commerce, government, and recreation. The field could land anything up to eight-passenger business jets and prop-driven airliners and allowed direct access to downtown Chicago for business travelers, government employees flown-in from the state capital, and tourists.

However, in the early morning of March 30, 2003, Mayor Richard Daley sent bulldozers to tear-up the field under the guise of 9/11 security concerns, a dubious claim since large airliners never used Meigs. Ironically, the airport’s closure also closed the tower on the field thus removing controlled airspace over the downtown area that only exists when the tower is open.

This is the story of one Air Traffic Controller who came to work that morning to find his office being destroyed before his eyes. 

In truth, for years Daley had wanted that land for a park and managed to close the airport briefly in the late 1990s. The land is owned by the Chicago Park District and the Illinois legislature pressured Daley to keep Meigs open, cutting a deal to renew the lease for 25 years in exchange for federal funding to upgrade O’Hare airport.

The federal funding failed to clear the U.S. Senate and Daley pounced, closing the airport in the middle of the night without notice or hearing, using emergency powers to save the city from a threat that was never there. The only threat was to the democratic process that  Daley chose to usurp, something seen years later by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and in Michigan by the GOP-controlled State Legislature and Governor’s office with its Emergency Manager Law.

Meigs Field in better days.

Meigs Field in better days.

“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. “He ruined Meigs because he wanted to, because he could,” columnist John Kass wrote of Daley in the Chicago Tribune.

In the early days of my corporate and charter flying career I would often fly an eight-seat King Air 200 or 350 into the airfield to pick-up and drop-off business executives. I was a personal pilot for a CEO who had an office in the John Hancock Building. Meigs was an incredible time-saver as we would fly-in from the aircraft’s home in Waukegan, pick him up and take him to New York for his weekly troll for investors.

While it may seem like opulence, any business person could waste an extra hour or two getting to Midway, Chicago Executive (Wheeling, Illinois), or O’Hare to catch a flight. Meigs was 10 minutes from the heart of commerce in Chicago where the value of an executive’s time is measured in hours not days.

Meigs Field as it is today. Courtesy: Friends of Meigs Field.

Meigs Field as it is today. Courtesy: Friends of Meigs Field.

Meigs was not just a time-saver for corporate travelers, it also housed helicopters for the Coast Guard and Chicago Fire Department and allowed for minimal response times for their various rescue missions.

It also was a safety valve for pleasure flyers in small single-engine aircraft that dared not fly directly across lake Michigan between Wisconsin and Michigan; and instead skirted the lake shore.

In 2006, for EAA Radio, I interviewed Michael Daffenberg an Air Traffic Controller who was assigned to work the morning shift in Meigs Tower on the day it was destroyed. As he drove to work that day at 5 a.m., like everyone else including the FAA, and even aircraft currently inbound to the field on flight plans, he had no idea Mayor Daley had been holding a demolition party since midnight.

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7 thoughts on “The Day Meigs Field Died

  1. Thank you for this excellent story!

    I loved Meigs Airport. It was a jewel for many reasons as pointed out in the story. I flew in and out of Meigs many times in the 80’s and 90’s with great savings in time, money and carbon emissions. When my family and I lived near Chicago before moving to Madison, we’d take our kids there to get “up close and personal” with airplanes and their comings and goings. My son’s interest in becoming a pilot, which he sadly did not live long enough to pursue, was sparked there.

    I remember clearly being aghast when the news broke 10 years ago about out-of-control Daley going in one night and destroying Meigs Field. I was even more aghast that nobody as much as lifted a finger to do anything about it. It was a flat-out criminal act, and nobody did then and has done since anything about it!!!

    And, yes, Emanuel is almost as bad as Daley. But I won’t bore folks with my take on all Emanuel disastrously has and has not done as Daley’s successor.

    Indeed Walker is a complete disaster for Wisconsin. This is partly because the non-extremist members of his Party in the Legislature and on the courts, who should have more sense, for the most part lack the courage to resist most of his disastrous moves.

    But Walker is constrained for the time being to be a saint compared to Daley and Emanuel. Walker has a lot of unquestioned control but not complete control over what happens in our state. Daley had, and Emanuel has, because of the political machines under their control, effectively complete control of what happens at the local, state and federal levels in Chicago and Cook County and nearly complete control of what happens at state and federal levels in the entire state of Illinois.

    Of course Walker and his cronies, like Republiteacans, WMC, other abjectly greedy and short-sighted business people, the likes of the hapless Ron Johnson, and the Koch brothers, are doing all they can to wrest absolute political control over Wisconsin like the mayors of Chicago will have there for the foreseeable future. The only thing that can stop Walker et al. are the people of Wisconsin, and they better get busy before Meigs Field-like, costly and otherwise mindless devastations become commonplace.

    Beyond the wiping out of collective bargaining for most public employees, that might still be stopped by the courts (at least if Roggensack is defeated tomorrow), we’ve already seen things like the brazen move to steal the MacKenzie Environmental Education Area from school children and legislation to foster the devastation with iron mining of a swath of Ashalnd and Iron Counties and Lake Superior.

  2. I can see how it would be very inconvenient to lose the field for some people. The upside is that it is a beautiful place to run/walk and bike that everyone can use now. I highly recommend it.

  3. Daley did the right thing here folks. He got rid of a waste of space elite airport that was used by corporate CEOs and instead put in a park and concert venue that is used by tens of thousands of Chicago citizens each year. That’s why there was not much of a fuss once it was gone. The city can actually use the space now.

    • The biggest problem of all is that he left pilots who owned planes that were still on the field with no way to get them out… They all had to pay TENS of thousands of dollars to move them and had to remove the wings to do so, which damages the plane.

    • Even if I accept that it may have been the right thing to do, it was done in the wrong way and that made it NOT the right thing to do. Doing it in the middle of the night behind everyone’s backs, trying to hide it in every way he could to prevent anyone from stopping him…

      He could have put it to a vote and see what the people wanted. Instead he acted single-handed like a dictator without any review of his plans before acting. This makes it a WRONG thing to do.

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