Meigs airport
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
6 min read

Reflecting on the Chicago disaster 20 years later

“I always savor flying, but that night was extra special for some reason.”

That’s how Dr. George Shehl recalls his base-to-final turn into runway 18 of Meigs Field on the beautiful evening of March 30, 2003. Little did Dr. Shehl, or anyone, know that it would be the last arrival to Chicago’s lakefront airport.

Meigs airport

Meigs was once one of the most convenient airports in America, given its close proximity to downtown Chicago.

Hours after Dr. Shehl closed the canopy door on his 1980 Bonanza and went to his nearby hotel, bulldozers would roll onto Meigs. Under the cover of darkness, and without any notice or approval, Chicago’s mayor, Richard Daley, drove old Meigs Field down.

Meigs Field has a place of lore in general aviation circles. Since its creation in 1948, it was the model for what general aviation could bring to a major American city. A young Y2K audience remembers Meigs as the feature airport on Microsoft Flight Simulator for years. However, politicians saw the airport as an eyesore instead of an asset. Mayor Daley was the most adamant about closing Meigs in order to build a park. After 9/11, Mayor Daley capitalized on the nation’s fears of aviation-based terrorism and pushed harder for shutting down the airport. When he couldn’t get his way through legal channels, he used the government’s brute force and destroyed Meigs Field one March night.

Shehl had come to Chicago from his home in Clarksburg, West Virginia to attend a cardiologist convention that weekend. “That night I went out with a former classmate who was living in Chicago at the time.” After a fun night with his old friend, Dr. Shehl woke up the next morning to a phone call from the same friend with strange news. “Hey George, they just plowed up Meigs Field!” At first Dr. Shehl didn’t believe him. “It was around April 1st, so I assumed this was a really bad April Fool’s joke. I told him ‘Nice try,’ but he replied that he wasn’t joking…‘Mayor Daley just trashed the airport!’”

Dr. Shehl then went onto the balcony from his hotel and confirmed the awful sight- Meigs Field was cratered. Massive “Xs” were bulldozed into the lone runway, making it unusable. “Shock and disappointment” is how Dr. Shehl described his feelings upon realizing what had happened. He, along with 20 other small airplanes, were now trapped in the heart of Chicago. How would they get out? That was the question that buzzed around the Meigs FBO, the Chicago FSDO, and all the way up to the FAA headquarters in Washington D.C. Nobody seemed to have an answer for the stranded pilots. Dr. Shehl recalled “somebody pitched the idea they would take the airplanes apart and boat them out. I was sick.”

Finally, the FAA stipulated a day on which the airplanes would be able to use the 2,500 foot taxiway to take offf from Meigs Field. It was quick by government standards – too quick. In fact, Dr. Shehl’s trip back was only delayed by a day. Why the urgency? The mayor, the government, and/or the FAA likely wanted those airplanes off Meigs Field as soon as possible to avoid the public relations nightmare which was already unfolding. Dr. Shehl’s wife didn’t learn about the airport closure from her husband, but rather an ABC reporter who had called the house asking for an interview.

closed runway

The FAA stipulated a day on which the stranded airplanes would be able to use the taxiway to depart from Meigs Field. Photo by Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune

The FAA’s hurry up and leave attitude was apparent in the way they handled the departures at Meigs. “A front had just moved through Chicago that day and it brought with it a nasty 25 knots northerly wind with 1,600 foot overcast ceilings.” Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, except this wasn’t a normal day. The FAA instructed the pilots that a northbound departure was not allowed, and they couldn’t pick up their IFR clearance on the ground.  The reason? A new TFR had appeared overnight on top of Chicago, citing terrorist fears. The TFR started just one mile north of Meigs.

Dr. Shehl, faced with a short runway and a 25-knot tailwind, did what many might not have the courage to do. He told the FAA no. He was not going to put his airplane, or himself, at risk so the government could avoid embarrassment. On a day when it seemed like big government couldn’t lose, a general aviation pilot dealt them a small reality check. Eventually the FAA agreed to allow a north departure but stood firm on keeping the TFR in place.

Dr. Shehl firewalled his Bonanza’s throttle and with the strong wind made it off the taxiway in plenty of space. He kept it low, fast, and tight on his right turn out over the lake. “It was kinda fun buzzing out of there just a couple hundred feet over the planetarium at the end of the island.” The trouble for the departures didn’t end there. The Chicago approach controllers were not used to pilots picking up their clearance in the air and seemed to put Dr. Shehl on the back burner while they were barely 1,000 feet over a socked in Lake Michigan.

Dr. George Shehl

Wright Brothers Award Winner Dr. George Shehl with his pride and joy N58 “Sugar Sugar.”

“I need my clearance to Clarksburg, and I need it now.” Dr. Shehl told them, his patience obviously wearing thin. “And boy, I got it.” Dr. Shehl recalls with a bit of a smile in his voice. The rest of the flight was uneventful, but it was a memory George Shehl hasn’t soon forgotten. Twenty years later Dr. Shehl is still flying the same Bonanza he took to Meigs Field that day, N58SS. Last year he was awarded the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award given to an aviator for 50 years of accident-free flying. It’s the highest honor received by a civilian pilot.

His advice to pilots reflecting on that fateful trip 20 years later? “Stay sharp and keep up your airmanship. You never know when you’re going to need those short field takeoffs or IFR procedures to get you out of a situation you didn’t even put yourself in.” He also remarked “Don’t be afraid to stand your ground, even to the FAA, for the safety of your flight.”

While the story of Meigs Field is a sad one for general aviation, Dr. Shehl’s experience shows that even on a morning when law and order was thrown to the wayside, a pilot’s training and common sense carried the day.

Michael Brown
Latest posts by Michael Brown (see all)
43 replies
  1. Suzanne Clifford
    Suzanne Clifford says:

    Very good article Michael!
    And congrats to Dr. Shehl on his Master Pilot Award as well as successfully escaping a horrific situation.

  2. Paul Madison
    Paul Madison says:

    I vividly remember this tragic event in GA history. Thanks for adding a personal and unknown side. How did you find Dr. Shehl?

    • Michael Brown
      Michael Brown says:

      I found him by looking at an old Chicago Times article with a picture of his plane and then did an N-number search on the FAA registry. Called the number and it turned out to be the same owner/pilot from that day: Dr. Shehl!

  3. Kary Lucas
    Kary Lucas says:

    I really appreciate Dr. Shehl’s article. About a year prior to this terrible destruction, I had my first date with my current hubby. We flew into Meigs Field in his Bonanza. We are both pilots, and we were both terribly disappointed and upset that Daley was not required to rebuild the airport.

    Thank you for the great flying advice for all pilots. Congratulations on receiving the well-deserved Wright Bros. Master Pilot Award.

    • George W. Shehl, MD
      George W. Shehl, MD says:

      Thank you very much, Kary! Like you, I loved flying my Bonanza into Meigs, each and every time I did it! Only about a 2hr 40 minute ride from WV and short cab ride over to Michigan Ave’s wonderful restaurants and hotels (back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s). It still hurts to know Meigs Field, with all of its irreplaceable character, is not there anymore.

  4. Wayne Van Andel
    Wayne Van Andel says:

    I flew into Meigs many, many times and it was so disheartening to see it destroyed; even more so upon learning how the dastardly act was done under cover of darkness. I haven’t voted Democrat since!

  5. Richard Reiling
    Richard Reiling says:

    I was fortunate to depart Meigs the evening before the first attempt by Mayor Daley to close the airport. The FAA made him reopen Meigs because of an agreement to increase funding for O’Hare if he would keep Meigs open. I believe this lasted about 3-4 years before Dr. Shehl’s experience. Meigs was so convenient to the private pilot and on occasion to small commercial flights – just a brief walk across the park to Michigan Avenue or even to McCormick.

  6. MWhite
    MWhite says:

    Too bad the Chicago Democrat Party can’t be forced to pay for a restoration of the airport. This would correct the heinous action of a corrupt politician.

  7. Duane Mader
    Duane Mader says:

    Meigs was an economic boon for Chicago. Approach would take you north or south to the lake shore and run you in. I could walk to the magnificent mile while waiting for pax. The park looks to be barely developed or used. Just one more handful of dirt thrown in the economic engine of America.

  8. Pete Smythe
    Pete Smythe says:

    Meigs was a great airport. I was only there once. I can’t imagine how many tens of millions of dollars Chicago has lost in revenue because of the actions of one dumb*** crooked mayor.

  9. Dan
    Dan says:

    I was born in Cook County and have visited Chicago many times – but not once since this beautiful airport was demolished by a clown

  10. John Aasen
    John Aasen says:

    A sad story, another example crooked politicians looking out for their own shallow interests, Illinois will continue to depopulate

  11. Ray Benza
    Ray Benza says:

    We used to fly into Meigs Field annually to attend the National Association of Office Products show in our family/business planes…last time for me was October 24th, 1987 in our Piper Seneca N32273. It was so convenient and a truly enjoyable experience.

  12. Matt Paxton
    Matt Paxton says:

    I flew into Miegs in 2001 and based there while visiting friend in the upper Midwest. When Meigs was threatened, I joined the Friends of Meigs Field group that was working on a long-term solution to keeping it open. I still have the ball cap.

  13. Watkins
    Watkins says:

    I used to love going up there from Georgia. We were flying a Citation at that time and as you said Doc, it was just right downtown making it so accessible to wonderful spots. The Mayor was so very short sighted with his plan. The intrinsic values GA added to that area with easy access to downtown cannot really be computed.

    Even today, knowing it was done, it is still hard to believe this could happen without strong legal repercussions. Thanks for the article Michael, that was a fun read and good for George standing up to the man!

  14. Mark Doucey
    Mark Doucey says:

    Mayor Daley should have gone to jail for his actions and Chicago should have been forced to repair the damage. Been to Meigs many times, the most convenient way to get to the loop.

    • Mark Jarratt
      Mark Jarratt says:

      I have to disagree. Slightly. Daly should still be in federal PMITA prison for destroying government property, endangering aircraft operations, spitting on the sidewalk, and whatever else they could have come up with.

  15. LeMoine Bond Realty Counsel
    LeMoine Bond Realty Counsel says:

    Hey Mike… Sure, enjoy your writing on Miegs Field Flying incident of the doctor … And frankly, the stupidity of the Chicago mayor. As boy in 1954, dreaming of being a pilot someday and flying into that field , we frequently passed by the Miegs as we traveled to Chicago for shopping with the family. I started flying in the mid sixties in SoCal and never did make it to the field but your reflections so beautifully described the dox experience… which brought back a bunch of neat memories. Thanks a million….
    BEST WISHES IN YOUR career and LIFE….of flying.
    FAA private SEL #1593406

  16. Barbara Santamaria
    Barbara Santamaria says:

    Our cherished airport in Toronto will close on December 1st of this year. Truly a sad day for our general aviation community. Lots of great memories though, which will live on. CYKZ

  17. William Oddo
    William Oddo says:

    This article looks similar to the present day closure of the prevailing Crosswind runway 25/7 at Detroit City Airport (KDET) 2 weeks ago. Mayor Mike Duggan designated the 80 acres of land to be used for light industrial purposes. I wouldn’t be surprised if bulldozers are in the mist waiting to start digging. The city of Detroit has thousands of acres of unused land for industry. The City of Detroit, AOPA, & FAA all signed off on the closure on one of our country’s finest Runways that helped build our automotive industrial nation.
    When contacting AOPA, they said “we’re lucky Mayor Duggan didn’t close the entire airport”. Some thing’s never change, big time political power always win over the small guy, in this case, a Bonanza owner and other training Cessna aircraft limited to one runway.

  18. Fred Hogan
    Fred Hogan says:

    My best memory is the time we took Uncle Bill’s 51 into Meigs for an airshow along the lakefront, about 1970ish. No better show with buzzing around those skysrapers….. Mayor Daley was a corrupt idiot deserving the lead ballon award.

  19. Greg
    Greg says:

    I lived in Chicago for 29 years, and was always saddened that part of the beautiful lakefront had been turned into an ugly airport used by so few. Chicago’s lakefront renaissance from the south tip of former Meig’s field all the way up to north end of Grant Park, well, that is sheer urban planning genius. Returned to public use and not a playground for the few. And please leave the politics out of this.

    • Mark
      Mark says:

      1. Airports aren’t ugly.
      2. They aren’t playgrounds.
      3. They benefit everyone.
      4. Politics/corruption ran ALL THROUGH this situation from the very beginning.

  20. David Hutchins
    David Hutchins says:

    In 1968, I was a student at Purdue University and was in my sophomore year in the General Flight Technology program. I flew as a copilot in the university’s Beech 18 which was used to transport professors and school VIPs and often we’d use Meigs Field because it was so convenient to downtown Chicago. It was a beautiful airport then and was until the day Daley had it leveled.
    Years later, I flew over Meigs countless times flying into ORD or MDW in US Airways DC-9s, B-737s, MD-80s and Air Buses and considered Meigs to be a jewel of an airport along the beautiful Lake Michigan shore.
    The day after the desecration, I was flying into Midway and asked ATC what had happened to Meigs. I was told that Mayor Daley couldn’t wait for the legal system to do his dirty work so he had it done on his own accord. The Daley Dynasty earned its reputation for being above the law and all running the city as a fiefdom. The under-utilized and marginally maintained lakeside park is all that is left of a once beautiful airport. It is currently a monument to hubris and dirty politics. RIP, Chicago Meigs Field!

  21. Patrick Considine
    Patrick Considine says:

    I also have a great picture from a fly in to Meigs field for a friend’s of Meigs get together with the Chicago skyline in the back ground with the “Barbie III” N5548N and the Lima Lima group. Was a great airport on the lake front.

  22. Stu Sibitzky
    Stu Sibitzky says:

    Meigs was so much to so many and that includes the downtown merchants that benefited from the close proximity. The fact that Daley was allowed to get away with it is beyond comprehension. What a slime-ball!

  23. Jim
    Jim says:

    I had heard that the real reason Daley wanted Miegs shut down was because it was convenient, for the then Republican governor, to fly in there when doing business in down town Chicago. By destroying the airport he now had to fly into Midway which wasn’t as convenient.

    Whatever the reason, Daley should have gone to jail. That’s certainly what would have happened to any of us if we decided to plow up an airport’s runway.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *