Throughout my time as a pilot, 2001 stands out as a truly memorable year. During the spring, I earned my CFI certificate and quickly became busy giving flight instruction. In the fall, I began my final year of college with the promise of an airline internship in the works for the following spring. In short, life was good. Then 9/11 happened.
A single day was all it took to bring my recent good fortune to a halt. My flight students and I were grounded, and I was one of several college seniors to learn a spring internship was no longer in the cards. In short, I felt vulnerable. Not only had my academic and employment plans been derailed, one of my greatest passions in life had been temporarily taken away from me.
Eventually, the FAA and other federal agencies loosened their grip on general aviation. I was able to resume giving flying lessons and enjoying the ever-so-precious freedom of flight by GA. As time went on, Uncle Sam eventually decided its enhanced Class B airspace rule was more of a burden than a security measure. As more and more post-9/11 security initiatives were relaxed, some coworkers and I jumped on the chance to take advantage of the marvels of GA travel.
As an Illinois-based pilot, Chicago’s Merrill C. Meigs Field (KCGX) had long been a crown jewel I’d wanted to visit. After more than three years of GA flying, my only trips into Meigs had been on Microsoft Flight Simulator. No longer. When news broke that Meigs had been reopened to GA traffic, one of my private pilot students (a coworker in the cross-country phase of training) and I immediately made plans to incorporate a visit to Meigs into his flight lessons.
When word of our plans spread around the office, a coworker offered to chip in on the trip costs for the chance to go along. After coordinating our schedules and keeping an eye on the weather forecasts, we decided October 29th would be the date of our Meigs Field adventure.
In contrast to the many dark days following 9/11, the morning of our trip promised pristine flying weather. We soon departed on what has probably been the single most anticipated flight I’ve ever made. More than anything else, the feeling I had on that day was the reason I’d chosen to become a pilot. I’ll never forget thinking, “this is what it’s all about.”
The Windy City
After nearly 2 ½ hours enroute, Illinois’ cornfields gave way to the scenic Chicago skyline. I doubt three people have ever been as giddy as we were upon initial contact with Meigs tower. We easily had the airport in sight and took advantage of the remarkable visibility to snap photos from our incredible vantage point. Though I was serving as CFI while my student operated the plane, one of my conditions for the trip was that I’d be making the landing at Meigs. When tower cleared us to land from our 4-mile final to runway 36, my student relinquished control and I felt a rush of excitement as the airport grew larger and larger. My companions kept busy snapping photos as we continued to approach the runway. In no time at all, we’d crossed the numbers and I was flaring to land. In my thousands of flights since, no touchdown has ever felt so sweet.
Within minutes, we were walking around downtown Chicago. I still can’t believe that such attractions as Navy Pier, McCormick Place, Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, and Michigan Avenue are so close to Meigs. If we’d flown commercially into Midway or O’Hare, we’d have had a decent commute to reach the heart of downtown. Instead, we covered plenty of ground around the city with nothing more than our two feet. Though I’d previously speculated that Meigs might be the coolest airport in the country, the ease of access we’d experienced that day put any lingering doubts to rest.
Following several hours of enjoying the city, the sky began to darken and we headed back to the airport. By the time we’d arrived, it was sufficiently dark to begin the night cross-country flight for home. Just as easily as we’d arrived, our VFR departure was simplicity defined. After a short time, the city lights began to fade and give way to the cornfields of rural Southern Illinois. If we’d made the same trip by car, we would’ve spent 10+ hours round trip (assuming no traffic or stops). Instead, we made the same journey in less than half the time at a leisurely, enjoyable pace. Could life get any better?
A Heinous Crime
Sadly, that would be my only flight into Meigs Field. On the evening of March 30, 2003, Mayor Richard M. Daley ordered city employees to bulldoze Meigs’ runway under the cover of darkness. Though numerous groups have since lobbied hard to resurrect Meigs, the airport has never been reopened.
Like hordes of GA pilots, I was outraged by Daley’s atrocious act. While the loss of such a treasure still haunts me, I take solace in the memories I have of such a remarkable place. It was truly an awesome experience.