Seven things I know about flying in Illinois

Corn or beans? The debate rages on

1. It’s a great place to learn to fly.

I “grew up” in my aviation career in Illinois, and I think it was a fantastic place to learn. One reason is that the weather changes often and has quite a bit of variability. As a pilot learning, it’s good to learn that weather conditions can be partly cloudy with light winds when you depart, and by the time you get to the practice area, a thunderstorm could have popped up.

Sleet, driving snow, high wind conditions, thunderstorms, tornadoes, solid overcast, and beautiful summer days make the flight conditions challenging, interesting, and a solid learning environment.

Another challenge when starting out is learning how to navigate on those cross country flights using dead reckoning and landmarks. Downstate Illinois (everything south of Chicago) looks a lot the same. Mostly tiny towns, all with one water tower, at a major north-south highway intersection.

Determining which small town you are getting ready to fly over forces you to distinguish with tiny details, and makes you a more observant pilot. You learn not to take for granted that you are where you think you are, just because you think you are. You learn to verify, verify, verify. Ask me how I know.

2. It’s hot.

Thunderstorm cloud
Thunderstorms can get quite nasty over the field of Illinois.

Illinois summers are hot and humid; thunderstorms most afternoons. Hot and humid conditions don’t necessarily lead to the most comfortable experience in an un-air-conditioned Sundowner or Cessna.

Continuous bumps, up and down drafts, and general joggling about as you turn-about-a-point while learning to fly can be challenging to your flying skills and your stomach. I remember having one poor student who would become sick, each and every time he flew.

But if you can get through it, it definitely makes you tougher, and you’ll feel you’ve paid some dues to earn that license!

3. It’s cold.

Speaking of paying some dues, earning that license, and getting tougher… it’s also freezing (so it’s got that going for it). Winters can be harsh, with icing, negative temperatures, driving wind and rain, and general nastiness.

While not comfortable in the four-seater that takes 20 minutes to start warming up, it definitely builds character and lets you know just how much you want to get that rating. Experienced or new, pilots are made to choose daily to make that go/no-go decision based on the weather and runway/taxiway conditions.

4. It’s flat.

Most of Illinois is extremely flat (excepting some hilly parts in the southern part of the state). This is good and bad for a learning student. Flat conditions mean not having to worry too much about terrain (just man-made tower avoidance), and it means every one of those fields (almost), presents a nice flat emergency landing space, in case of engine failure.

Students need to keep in mind that learning in this environment, though, in no way prepares you for high terrain. In fact, although my brother and sister-in-law own a lodge in Bettles, Alaska, I would never go fly there without supplemental training on flying in Alaska and its challenging terrain.

5. There is a raging debate about whether emergency landings are better in corn or beans.

This may not be known outside the Midwest, but there is a raging debate amongst Illinois flight instructors. Is it better to do an emergency landing in a corn field or a bean field? (Since there are hundreds of fields to choose from, and since there are likely to be both under you when you have your simulated or real engine failure.)

Some say corn is better because it would cushion your aircraft as it glided down, and the downside of beans is the gear tangling in the vines and possibly turning the airplane.

Some say beans are better because it’s lower and you have more visibility all the way down, while the mature corn cobs would beat the airplane to shreds.

I think it may be an academic debate, as I don’t know of anyone that has had the opportunity to compare landing in corn vs. beans. But if anyone has actual experience, I’d love to hear it. In the meantime it’s a somewhat funny debate… specific, I think, to the Midwest.

Meigs airport
Meigs was once one of the most convenient airports in America.

6. Meigs Field was the coolest.

Landing at Meigs was one of those memories that will always stay vivid. It was fun when I was a student; it was fun to take my students there as an instructor.

In addition to pure fun, it was a fantastic learning environment. As a student pilot, I became better from flying there. And I became a better instructor from managing my students in and out of there. And, it was just awesome.

The airport was beautiful, right on the edge of the city and out in the lake. It was busy. Students got to deal with the big Class B airspace around O’Hare and interact with the fast pace of those approach controllers – definitely challenging. Our little Sundowner or Twin Comanche was spaced in with the business jets, and students felt the pressure of speaking with the Chicago controllers, while they desperately tried to sound like they’d done it a million times instead of a first-time student pilot.

It was just a cool experience. The FBO had a courtesy car available. After landing, we would drive downtown for some deep dish pizza while the students decompressed.

A great airport all the way around. I miss Meigs.

7. The Chicago air traffic controllers are great.

In my opinion, the Chicago controllers are fantastic. They sometimes get stern (especially if you stop moving on the ground in O’Hare and block their beautifully set up traffic flow), but very rarely, and only if you are misbehaving. Usually they are organized and relaxed on the radio, making it a pleasant experience to fly in there. They move some serious traffic, and they do with a friendly, calm way, while ensuring that everyone is doing their part to keep it all moving. They juggle hundreds of “balls in the air” with skill and grace, in my opinion.

It’s been awhile since I’ve done general aviation flying in Illinois, and though I used to be based in Chicago, I only now go there occasionally. These are the things I definitely remember about flying in Illinois. I will hope no one ever finds out for sure which is better… corn or beans.

Read the rest of the series on “Things I Know About Flying in…” here.

10 Comments

  • I have been flying mostly in Illinois and recognize the swings in weather. I like winter way more than summer but that’s just a persona taste.

    Great article and I wish I had the chance to land at Meigs.

    • Hi Joe,
      Oh man, I wish you could have landed at Meigs too. I like winter too (in fact I currently live in New Hampshire, and we get lots of that), but as you say, personal taste! Hope you enjoy flying in Illinois as much as I have. Thank you for reading, and for your comment.

  • Hi Kristin. I got my private and instrument at KDPA 30+ years ago. Couldn’t agree more about the value of learning to fly in all kinds of “actual”, and working with the fantastic controllers in the region. I live in Florida now, but was based at Chicago Executive prior to moving. I didn’t know about the corn vs bean debate, but agree that Meigs was a fantastic resource. During the height of Mayor Daley’s campaign to close the field, I flew in from out of state and landed there in my Baron. I called for a cab. Repeatedly. Even though there were many cabs nearby at the Museum complex, it took over 30 minutes until one showed up. When I asked the cabbie what the problem was, he told me they had been told to ‘stand down’ on their service levels to Meigs as part of the strategy to disincent traffic into the field. We all know what happened next.
    Thank you for a great article.

    • Hi Mike,
      Thanks for your reply. Wow. That’s a very interesting story about the cab driver being told to “stand down”. I am glad you weren’t having an urgent or emergent situation at the time!
      As to the corn vs. beans debate, one of the guys told me that they know someone that landed in corn and their airplane got really beaten up. So….chalk one up for beans (haha).
      Keep the comments coming!–Kristin

  • Well done! I landed at Meigs a few times in the company Turbo Commander. It was easy coming in from the west. The controller would take you south and under the class B and fly you up the lakeshore to the north. I bet Chicago’s economy has taken a huge hit over the years since they lost Meigs since there is really no good alternative.

    • Duane,
      Thank you. It would be interesting to know the financial impact. I’m glad you got to go in there. Fun times.

  • I did my night cross country flight many years ago on a cold January evening, along the lakefront below the Bravo to Gary. Severe clear and the Christmas lights were still on in Chicago.
    Spectacular!

    • Rick,
      Isn’t it amazing how some of those images just stick with you forever? Your description was great. I could see it too. One of those views most people will never get to see.

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