Reflecting on the Chicago disaster 20 years later
“I always savor flying, but that night was extra special for some reason.”
That’s how Dr. George Shehl recalls his base-to-final turn into runway 18 of Meigs Field on the beautiful evening of March 30, 2003. Little did Dr. Shehl, or anyone, know that it would be the last arrival to Chicago’s lakefront airport.
Hours after Dr. Shehl closed the canopy door on his 1980 Bonanza, and went to his nearby hotel, bulldozers would roll onto Meigs. Under the cover of darkness, and without any notice or approval, Chicago’s mayor, Richard Daley, drove old Meigs Field down.
Meigs Field has a place of lore in general aviation circles. Since its creation in 1948, it was the model for what general aviation could bring to a major American city. A young Y2K audience remembers Meigs as the feature airport on Microsoft Flight Simulator for years. However, politicians saw the airport as an eyesore instead of an asset. Mayor Daley was the most adamant about closing Meigs in order to build a park. After 9/11, Mayor Daley capitalized on the nation’s fears of aviation-based terrorism and pushed harder for shutting down the airport. When he couldn’t get his way through legal channels, he used the government’s brute force and destroyed Meigs Field one March night.
Shehl had come to Chicago from his home in Clarksburg, West Virginia to attend a cardiologist convention that weekend. “That night I went out with a former classmate who was living in Chicago at the time.” After a fun night with his old friend, Dr. Shehl woke up the next morning to a phone call from the same friend with strange news. “Hey George, they just plowed up Meigs Field!” At first Dr. Shehl didn’t believe him. “It was around April 1st, so I assumed this was a really bad April Fool’s joke. I told him ‘Nice try,’ but he replied that he wasn’t joking…‘Mayor Daley just trashed the airport!’”
Dr. Shehl then went onto the balcony from his hotel and confirmed the awful sight- Meigs Field was cratered. Massive “Xs” were bulldozed into the lone runway, making it unusable. “Shock and disappointment” is how Dr. Shehl described his feelings upon realizing what had happened. He, along with 20 other small airplanes, were now trapped in the heart of Chicago. How would they get out? That was the question that buzzed around the Meigs FBO, the Chicago FSDO, and all the way up to the FAA headquarters in Washington D.C. Nobody seemed to have an answer for the stranded pilots. Dr. Shehl recalled “somebody pitched the idea they would take the airplanes apart and boat them out. I was sick.”
Finally, the FAA stipulated a day on which the airplanes would be able to use the 2,500 foot taxiway to take offf from Meigs Field. It was quick by government standards – too quick. In fact, Dr. Shehl’s trip back was only delayed by a day. Why the urgency? The mayor, the government, and/or the FAA likely wanted those airplanes off Meigs Field as soon as possible to avoid the public relations nightmare which was already unfolding. Dr. Shehl’s wife didn’t learn about the airport closure from her husband, but rather an ABC reporter who had called the house asking for an interview.
The FAA’s hurry up and leave attitude was apparent in the way they handled the departures at Meigs. “A front had just moved through Chicago that day and it brought with it a nasty 25 knots northerly wind with 1,600 foot overcast ceilings.” Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, except this wasn’t a normal day. The FAA instructed the pilots that a northbound departure was not allowed, and they couldn’t pick up their IFR clearance on the ground. The reason? A new TFR had appeared overnight on top of Chicago, citing terrorist fears. The TFR started just one mile north of Meigs.
Dr. Shehl, faced with a short runway and a 25-knot tailwind, did what many might not have the courage to do. He told the FAA no. He was not going to put his airplane, or himself, at risk so the government could avoid embarrassment. On a day when it seemed like big government couldn’t lose, a general aviation pilot dealt them a small reality check. Eventually the FAA agreed to allow a north departure but stood firm on keeping the TFR in place.
Dr. Shehl firewalled his Bonanza’s throttle and with the strong wind made it off the taxiway in plenty of space. He kept it low, fast, and tight on his right turn out over the lake. “It was kinda fun buzzing out of there just a couple hundred feet over the planetarium at the end of the island.” The trouble for the departures didn’t end there. The Chicago approach controllers were not used to pilots picking up their clearance in the air and seemed to put Dr. Shehl on the back burner while they were barely 1,000 feet over a socked in Lake Michigan.
“I need my clearance to Clarksburg, and I need it now.” Dr. Shehl told them, his patience obviously wearing thin. “And boy, I got it.” Dr. Shehl recalls with a bit of a smile in his voice. The rest of the flight was uneventful, but it was a memory George Shehl hasn’t soon forgotten. Twenty years later Dr. Shehl is still flying the same Bonanza he took to Meigs Field that day, N58SS. Last year he was awarded the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award given to an aviator for 50 years of accident-free flying. It’s the highest honor received by a civilian pilot.
His advice to pilots reflecting on that fateful trip 20 years later? “Stay sharp and keep up your airmanship. You never know when you’re going to need those short field takeoffs or IFR procedures to get you out of a situation you didn’t even put yourself in.” He also remarked “Don’t be afraid to stand your ground, even to the FAA, for the safety of your flight.”
While the story of Meigs Field is a sad one for general aviation, Dr. Shehl’s experience shows that even on a morning when law and order was thrown to the wayside, a pilot’s training and common sense carried the day.