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4/2/03 1st planes leave

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FAA relents, first planes leave Meigs

By John McCormick
Tribune staff reporter
Published April 2, 2003, 3:45 PM CST

The stranded aircraft at Meigs Field finally took flight this afternoon after federal aviation officials changed their minds and agreed to let planes depart to the north.

City officials earlier scrubbed plans to let aircraft use a taxiway to take off from Meigs Field after a wind shift prevented take-offs to the south, as called for under a plan approved this morning by the Federal Aviation Administration.

But shortly before 2 p.m., the FAA decided aircraft could depart to the north at their pilots' discretion, according to Elizabeth Isham Cory, spokeswoman for the federal agency.

The first planes did so at about 2:15 p.m., using roughly half the length of the taxiway to get off the ground before making a gentle bank to the east over Lake Michigan as they cleared the airport.

Sixteen aircraft had been grounded at Meigs since early Monday, when the city without warning sent in heavy construction equipment to tear up the lakefront airport's runway. More than half had departed by 3:45 p.m.

Fourteen pilots came to Meigs this morning after receiving word from the city they finally could leave. But they were then delayed by the weather -- first, by strong crosswinds out of the west, and then, by a late-morning fog that suddenly enshrouded the lakefront. By the time the fog lifted, winds had swung around to the north.

An airplane can take off only into the wind. And an agreement reached earlier today between city officials and the FAA allowed departures only over open water to the south, a safety precaution in the event a plane lost power on take-off.

The FAA also decreed pilots could carry no passengers and only enough fuel to reach the nearest airport, Cory said. Additionally, the city made pilots sign waivers saying they accepted the risk of taking off from a taxiway, she said.

A spokesman for Mayor Richard Daley's office said the pilots were given three choices: To fly their own planes out, to have the city hire a professional pilot to do so, or to have their planes disassembled and trucked away at the city's expense. All of the pilots opted to fly out themselves.

Dr. Stan Crie and his wife, Canden, said city officials notified them this morning they could leave, but they'd have only a short time to do so. Last Friday, the couple flew their plane from their home in St. Joseph, Mo., to Chicago for a medical convention. They had intended to spend a few more days in town sightseeing but had to cut short their visit.

"We just had to cancel everything. Otherwise, we couldn't leave," Canden Crie said.

Both continued to express frustration with the city for having shut down Meigs and torn up the runway without warning Monday.

"It's like visiting a war zone," Stan Crie said.

The city has told pilots it will provide shuttles to the Gary airport for their spouses.

In a move that caught everyone by surprise, Daley ordered heavy construction equipment onto the airfield in Monday's predawn hours to carve giant Xs into Meigs' sole runway, rendering it unusable.

Daley, who has long wanted the airport converted into parkland, said later he no longer felt bound by an agreement with former Gov. George Ryan to keep Meigs open in exchange for the governor's support for federal legislation authorizing the expansion of O'Hare International Airport. That legislation never materialized.

The mayor promised to reimburse the 16 stranded pilots the costs of having their planes disassembled and trucked away, were that to become necessary. But city survey crews Tuesday determined to the FAA's satisfaction that Meigs' taxiway could be used safely for takeoffs.

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