Saturday, September 28, 2013

I Remember Meigs

Meigs.  I remember Meigs.  It was a magical place.  To many it represented aviation.  Others hated it because it did.  For me it was a location.
Location, location, location.  That’s what they say in the real estate business.  It also rolls off the tongues of barnstormers.  Flying from airport to airport eats up too much time and money.  Find a spot full of tourist next to an airport that isn’t already served by some guy who’s trying to lose money and you’ve found a great spot.  That’s what Meigs was to me.
That writing under the front "hole" says "Air conditioned for your comfort".
As best as I can tell there were two reasons nobody had previously attempted to operate a biplane air tour business from the Chicago waterfront.  The winds there were notorious and the entire Navy Pier area (and all of Chicago) was a cesspool of corruption.  Fortunately the Stearman is one of the best crosswind aircraft ever built and the airport was such a subject of constant media attention the corruption kept a distance.  I would come away with great memories.
The first Summer I hopped rides from Meigs, each day started with a ritual flight.  “Old Bess”, hangared at Gary, would take me across petroleum storage tanks, past an apocalyptic industrial plant, then out over the water of Lake Michigan.  From that point on the route could be what you wanted it to be.
Look right for a vast expanse of cool water dotted with pleasure boats; left for pollution, blight, and poverty.  As for me, up the middle was the concern.
Between the Indiana/Illinois state line and Meigs field, emergency landing areas sufficient to save both a pilot and an airframe exist but they are few.  Among them, one stands out.  It is land upon which another industrial plant once stood.  Stripped of everything but toxins and road beds, to most observers is serves no official purpose. Yet to some pilots, it is much more.
Sorry, this photo was water damaged.  "The Blues" are just coming into sight on
the right.  Below the cockpit are the "kill markings"; two farmers on tractors and a farmer holding a pitchfork.
Search out three consecutive asphalt turns possessing changing elevation and radii, mountains with back bowls full of untouched powder, and any vacant land 800’x 60’ or greater and introduce respectively, a person in a sports car, someone on skis, and a pilot upon wing and you’ll find out what makes them tick.  Trust me, Briggs Myers (ENTP) has nothing on this test.  If you've every flown the shoreline between Chicago and Gary, you know what I'm talking about.
The weather at Meigs was as unique as the airport.  Regularly the field would be socked in and stay that way for hours while people just a few miles south sun bathed on the beach.  Thankfully its perceived chaos was predictable and if you operated out of there enough you learned what to expect.  That knowledge is what I was relying on one particular morning as I lifted off from Gary.
Passing a rusty industrial bird’s nest of pipe and steel beams, Old Bess and I drifted just over the water flying northwest.  Ahead I could see the Meigs weather report was correct.  Between us and the field, it gradually faded from VFR to IMC a few miles from the runway.  Since that’s what I had expected, I pressed on being sure it would clear.  It didn’t.
Calling Meigs tower, the controllers weren’t optimistic but knowing the field they too predicted clearing weather.  I offered to circle, told them where I’d be, and turned right.  Fifteen minutes later conditions had worsened and I received a call.
“998, it doesn’t look good - you may want to head home and come back later”.  “Thanks for the update but it’s great out here so I’m going to hang out and see what happens”, I said.  “OK, we’ll let you know if anything changes”, they replied.  And with that I flew three or four more circles before I decided to make their job easier.
That is actually Lake Michigan not long after the Zebra Mussels had invaded and cleared it up.
“Meigs tower 998 - Go ahead 998 - Hey I’m just going to fly around out here and if it looks like it’s clearing I’ll call you - Roger 998, how much gas you have? - Enough”.  At that point I began to set everything for maximum endurance.
How do you set a Stearman up for max endurance?  Well, it depends on how you define it.  If you go with “a power setting and configuration that allows you to stay airborne for the longest amount of time”, it pretty much involves pulling the throttle back to the point you are cruising with the bottom of the wings parallel to the horizon and the engine leaned.  Of course you’re still burning gas.  That’s why on that day I went with an alternate definition.
Maximum Endurance is “a condition or configuration in which you are able to conserve gas for the maximum amount of time”.
Throttle to idle, mixture rich, carb heat on, and trim set, I rolled out wings level.  Pulling gently aft on the stick and progressively more as time ticked away, eventually it hit full aft with a thump.  Old Bess had stalled exactly as planned.  Continuing to hold it it back, I cleared the engine, switched off the mags and shut off the fuel.  I was on the ground.
You never really realize how much land a steel mill takes up until you stand where one once was.  Twenty years earlier the road where Old Bess sat ran through the middle of the mill with a tolerance which would never have allowed such a landing.  Remove everything above ground though and you have enough land to make a rather large airport with multiple runways.
Climbing back up on the wing I leaned in the cockpit, flipped the master, turned on the radio and called, “Hey Meigs, do I see it clearing up there? - Stearman 998, it’s still IMC up here, how you doing? - OK.  I’ll call you in a while - OK”.  And I shut it back down for further exploration.
The max endurance setting had been working perfectly for the larger part of an hour when I bent down to pick up a large rusty rivet.  It was then I was struck by a strange feeling; had anyone seen me land and if so what would be their reaction?   Turning to look west, I had my answer.  Lined up against the fence with fingers sticking through, were kids from the local area.  Someone had definitely seen me land and very quickly I decided my visit was over.
Looking for Ferris Bueller.
Flipping the master and radio on I made another call, “Meigs tower, Stearman 998 - Stearman 998, we decided you had gone home.  Are you still out there? - Yes sir, how’s the weather? - Well it’s getting better and should be VFR soon. How much gas does that thing hold"?  Pushing the mixture forward, rotating the fuel to on, pumping the primer, and setting the trim, I responded, “Enough -  Head this way and let us know when you're six miles out", he replied.  “Roger”.  And with that I pulled the harness lever over-center, pulled it tight, and hit start.
Lifting off with a cloud of dust following Old Bess into the air, I could see the kids waving and I wagged back.

After that, three days went by before I quit expecting someone to drop in asking questions.  Then just before I was set to leave Meigs for the season, a Young Eagles rally was held at the field.  When the event was almost over, one of the Tuskegee Airmen I knew walked over and asked if I had enough time to give a ride to two special kids.  According to him they were extremely excited to see the plane; something about seeing one just like it land at the...
I love this photo.  It offers a perspective of altitude, the height of the
buildings, and a sense being up there among them.  It also nicely juxtaposes
old and new.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I got to land there once to take a friend up to the Dirkson Building to get a last minute pass port.

It was a cold crisp morning and there I was in my little Cessna 150 flying along the big beautiful buildings.

What a cool thing to see.
You can still fly that route but there is no Meigs Field thanks to corruption you mentioned.
Richie Daly , just like his dad.
I just can't believe they haven't gotten their land based casino where Meigs Field used to be yet.
I can't wait to pee on that guy's grave.
I hope isn't too long the day I get there.