Flying Meigs – by Bill O’Neill

Meigs Field after Demolition Dick's midnight raid on April 3, 2003. Photo Credit - Precision Aerial Photography
Meigs Field after Demolition Dick’s midnight raid on April 3, 2003. Photo Credit – Precision Aerial Photography

On a chilly night in Chicago about 22 years ago, myself, my partner and a friend (all 3 of us pilots) decided to do the night-run into Meigs Field (formerly CGX) in Chicago. For those of you who’ve ever had the pleasure to do this (before Demolition Dick got a hold of it, that is…), even on a bad night, it was spectacular and this night it was 25°, not even a smidgen of wind and absolutely crystal clear for as far as you could see

We rented my favorite Archer II from Northwest Flyers in Schaumburg (06C) and departed the pattern to the SW to fly the VFR corridor to the lakefront. I always loved talking to the controllers at Midway Airport (KMDW). Always professional, and gave every small GA aircraft in their airspace, the same courtesy they gave the big-boys. The controller asked me to let them know when I’d passed 2 miles NE, so I did so, then they handed us off to Meigs’ tower. We told Meigs of our intentions, to fly NB at 1500-2000’ along the shoreline for 3 miles, circle back and do it again, that we were on a photo-mission.  He acknowledged us, and we flew along the first time at 2000′, and took in the sights.  On our 2nd and final time around, when giving our position of 1 mile South of the airport, turning N again for the second pass, I just kind of muttered (when we were mid-field):

“what a view we have up here tonight!”  to the controller below me.  I felt sorry for him!  He sounded so utterly bored!

Expecting silence, like we’d had since checking in with him all of a sudden he responds with “You should see it from where I‘m sitting! I wish I had a camera.”.

I keyed up and said “well…..we have a camera.”

Without hesitation, he responded “83 Bravo, cleared to land runway one-eight, nobody else in the pattern, use the tower tie-downs”….all in that ATC monotone voice. No emotion whatsoever.  Now I was wondering what I’d gotten us into.

I made a close in right-base and final, then executed the most perfect landing I’d done in a long time. I envisioned people applauding me for that landing from inside the terminal, when reality was, we were 3 of probably 5 people total at Meigs that night. 😉 We made the 2nd turn-off, went to the tower tie-downs and hopped out of the airplane.

Now……I’m an old HAM radio guy so talking on the radio while training for my PPL was second nature, but unlike HAM radio, you don’t sit and “chat” with controllers about fishing or trimming your VHF whip too short,  In fact……. I always pictured every controller I’ve ever spoken with from an airplane, looking like Jack Webb in Dragnet. White shirt, black tie, clean-cut looking like Beaver Cleaver’s Father dressed for Sunday dinner and always, serious as a heart-attack.   We walked through a door at the base of the tower and saw a (really tall) metal ladder so…we climbed it. We got ¾ of the way up, (still not quite 100% sure we were in the right place) when someone opens the hatch at the top and all you could hear echoing down that hole was Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven (right at the part where the drums come crashing in and the lead-solo starts!) We finished the climb up and shook hands with this guy with moderately long-hair in a Hawaiian shirt who says “Welcome to Meig’s, man!  Yeah……mind blown! (yeah….he totally blew that stereotype out the door!)

We talked for a while (we were his only traffic the whole time we were there) and having never been in a control tower before, being a pilot and a radio-geek, I was loving it. He showed us the door for the cat-walk around the tower and we went out, and yes, he was 100% absolutely correct. His view of downtown Chicago that night was every bit as cool as ours was at 1500‘ and better than that…his choice in music was exquisite! What I didn’t know at the time was that, THAT would be my one and last visit IN the CGX tower. I took

My Bell 47 model with a chunk of asphalt from the destroyed runway at Meigs Field.
My Bell 47 model with a chunk of asphalt from the destroyed runway at Meigs Field.

great pride in getting my PPL, As a kid, I grew-up on shows like SkyHawks and Sky King (yeah, I had a crush on Penny too, who didn’t?), and religiously watched Chuck and P.T. from WhilyBirds save the world with their Bell 47 (which I have a model of sitting next to me along with a chunk of the runway from Meigs as I write this), but never really considered myself a real-pilot until I took-off and landed at Meigs Field, and once licensed, I did so regularly whenever I could.  I conducted many business deals down there whenever possible.

We took our photos and stood outside talking when my buddy noticed a white van with a yellow gumball flashing on it, parked by the plane and someone was walking around our airplane. We went back into the tower and the controller told us that it was the City looking for their $8 landing fee. I thought we were in trouble.  The guy had absolutely no idea we were in the tower. Suddenly, watching this guy look for us had us laughing in hysterics.  He had to be thinking it was the “Ghost-Pilot”.  😉

After he left and drove back to the terminal we laughed for a few more minutes then decided it was time to head out so we went back down the ladder. We were almost at the bottom of the ladder when all of a sudden we heard more Zeppelin blaring again and looked up, when the controller had opened the hatch and stuck his head down the hole and quietly said:

“83 Bravo, cleared for immediate take off! Have a great night guys!”

We all started laughing again and did our best John Belushi impressions (from Animal House), tip-toeing back to the airplane, gave it a quick look-over, jumped in, started it up, taxied with no lights to the departure-end of 36, did a quick run-up and got the hell out of Dodge. I flew the length of the runway about 50’ off the deck to gain airspeed and then we saw the van come flying out of the terminal towards the tower and we were again, in tears laughing. “MISSED US AGAIN” we laughed! (they actually had the last laugh and sent that $8 bill to the aircraft’s owner. 😉  We did a 240° turn over the lake and then over Meigs and followed the same route home as we did coming down.

An old Piper Aircraft ad featuring Meigs in the background. Someone knew that value of Chicago's Gem on the Lakefront.
An old Piper Aircraft ad featuring Meigs in the background. Someone knew that value of Chicago’s Gem on the Lakefront.

It was about a year after that when Dick tried the first time to close Meigs in 1996. I remember the day vividly.  It was my birthday in 1996 so I packed up the wife and kids and went down there to witness the last planes leaving CGX. (it was only closed for 4 months though) That attempt to close the airport was only temporarily thwarted until the Mayor had his head-henchman Frank Kruesi assemble construction equipment to permanently (and criminally) destroy the runway in the infamous midnight raid of April 6, 2003.  Why nobody was ever criminally charged in that ordeal I’ll never know.  (well…yeah, we know why, but they should had been!)

That night will always stick out in my mind though as my personal favorite aviation moment, and of course, every time I hear Stairway to Heaven now, I’m in that tower in hysterics! 😉

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