Airfield’s destruction testament to the scourge of absolute power
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.
“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 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.