Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Meigs

One of the more fantastical memories from my childhood was eating a sack lunch along Chicago's lakefront while watching planes takeoff and land from Meigs Field. It must have been a field trip to the Arie Crown Theater inside McCormick Place, for I can't think why I would have had the perspective otherwise. But it was magical, with boats in the harbor, the lake stretching as far as the eye could see, and several small planes buzzing about nearly overhead, with a view of the country's best skyline presumably filling their windshields.

That experience stuck with me, informed my love of aviation, and strongly influenced my drive to become a pilot and an aerospace engineer. An early life goal of mine was to perform a landing at Meigs, and then presumably a takeoff as well. At various points over the years it seemed like this would become impossible, and then another last minute negotiation would save the little airport for a few years longer, and it started to look like it could happen. My earnings potential was finally catching up with my dreams, and I started my flight instruction in the months prior to 9/11/01. Before finishing my license I moved to Chicago and was unemployed for a spell, and held off on lessons during that time. I did head out to the airport during that time to look for work, and it was a thrill to imagine flying from there someday soon. But my medical had lapsed during that period, and before I had a chance to renew it Meigs was destroyed.

Several factors led to the demise of Meigs, but chief amongst them were corruption and hubris. During his mayoral tenure, Richard M. Daley had threatened closure of Meigs several times, and for a brief period in 1996 and 1997 he was successful in his efforts. Negotiations with Gov. Edgar and attempts by the IL state legislature to takeover Meigs served to extend the airport's life into the new Millennium. This cycle repeated itself in 2001, when Gov. Ryan and Mayor Daley agreed to save Meigs as a side deal related to O'Hare expansion.

In 2003 Ryan was out as Governor amidst numerous convictions of former aides and associates in the "Licenses for Bribes" scandal. His former chief of staff was convicted of racketeering and fraud in March of 2003, and it was widely believed at the time that Ryan's due was coming soon. Conversely, Mayor Daley was reelected to his fifth term in February of '03, with over 70% of the vote. With no one to challenge him, Daley sent out a convoy of heavy equipment in the wee morning hours of Monday March 31st, and summarily destroyed an active airport in direct contravention of Federal Regulations. This was done under cover of darkness, after the last news broadcasts of the night, and with full intent to circumvent any semblance of democratic policy apparatus.

Daley said the morning after, "To do this any other way would have been needlessly contentious", and couched his actions as necessary in the face of potential terrorist attacks launched from or apparently headed to Meigs. This must have been lower on his list of priorities when he agreed on 12/5/01 to keep Meigs open until at least 2006, less than 3 months after the Al Qaeda attacks on the east coast.

One man had the chutzpah and the power to destroy what was to many the "coolest little airport on the planet", basically on a personal whim. It made me sick then, and it still makes me angry now.

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