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4/3/03 15 planes go

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15 planes go, Meigs awaits last flight out

By John McCormick and Gary Washburn, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune staff reporter Sufiya Abdur-Rahman contributed to this report
Published April 3, 2003

If the weather cooperates, the final plane likely to ever leave Meigs Field will head into the sky Thursday, a day after 15 previously stranded aircraft used a taxiway as a runway to lift off from the now-closed downtown airport.

After fog and strong winds threatened to extend a public relations headache for Mayor Richard Daley, the first plane took off about 2:15 p.m. By dusk, 14 others had followed.

Air traffic controllers warned the pilots they were taking off at their own risk, a warning similar to one in a letter the city required pilots to sign before departing.

Daley, who had the Meigs runway destroyed in the dark of night late Sunday and early Monday, has been criticized by local and national aviation groups and some Chicago business leaders for closing the 55-year-old airfield.

But Daley continued to insist Wednesday that he did the right thing, saying the closure was necessary to protect the area's downtown from terrorist strikes that could potentially be inflicted by small-plane pilots.

The mayor, who wants to convert the airfield into a park, said he closed Meigs during the dark of night because "planes land during the day."

Asked if the closure would have been easier if done in a more orderly fashion, Daley replied, "We think this is appropriate."

But Ald. Thomas Murphy (18th) questioned the way the mayor closed the airport.

"I don't think it was handled properly," he said. "I think it should have been done in broad daylight with City Council approval."

The mayor first attempted to close Meigs and convert it into a park in 1995 but was thwarted by then-Gov. Jim Edgar.

Continued hostility over the mayor's decision was obvious in the voices of the control tower operators and pilots as they began to depart.

Before racing down the taxiway, one pilot said he planned to fly over the "Maggie Daley Wetlands Park" for the final time, referring to the mayor's wife and the possibility the airfield will be converted to a nature preserve.

Not to be outdone, the control tower responded, "I heard it may be a gambling casino."

The airport was a confusing scene much of Wednesday. Pilots were told to be at the airport early in the morning, but many left after they were told at midday that the weather was not cooperating.

Pilot Carl Cadwell of Washington state was heading to Midway Airport to catch a commercial flight to San Diego when he was informed that he should return to Meigs if he wanted to get his plane out.

Earlier, he called Daley a "bully" for closing the airport with no advance notice. "I guess we have a mayor who doesn't care about the guests in his city," he said.

City aviation officials said the remaining plane couldn't be flown out Wednesday because the St. Louis-area pilot had already left town. The pilot, a doctor, plans to have someone else fly the plane Thursday.

Besides the on-air hostility, there was also sadness surrounding the airfield as the final wave of planes headed out.

As one plane signed off with the Meigs control tower, an air traffic controller responded, "Wish I could be talking to you again."

Copyright 2003, Chicago Tribune

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