AOPA President Phil Boyer was honored with a special "Spirit of Flight" award February 2 at a Friends of Meigs Field benefit in Chicago.
The award recognized Boyer's longtime support of the prime general aviation airport, which has been threatened for years and was finally closed in 1996. An AOPA-supported last-minute compromise in early 1997 allowed an additional five years of operation for the field. That extension is due to expire in February 2002.
In accepting the 12-inch-high crystal obelisk before a crowd of some 300 at Chicago's historic Drake Hotel, Boyer reiterated the importance of saving Meigs, which is just minutes from downtown Chicago. "The rescue of Meigs has become an icon," Boyer told the attendees. "Everywhere I go, AOPA members ask me, if an airport as essential as Meigs can be closed, what could happen to my airport?"
Nationwide, public-use general aviation airports are closing at the rate of more than two a month.
Boyer drew an analogy between disappearing general aviation airports and urban streetcars, once ubiquitous. In the late 1940s and 1950s, many communities decided the streetcars were no longer necessary and so ripped out tracks, just as many today are ripping out general aviation runways.
"But as I look around some 40 years later, those same communities are going to huge expense to put the tracks back in," Boyer said. "They may call it light rail today, but it sure looks like the return of streetcars to me!"
In introducing Boyer, Friends of Meigs Field President Steve Whitney told attendees that the honoree has been an active supporter of Meigs Field since the 1970s, when he served as general manager of Chicago's WLS-TV 7. Whitney showed a late-1970s video clip of a Boyer television editorial supporting the airport. "The important thing," Boyer told viewers at the time, "is that Meigs continues to be a vital and well-maintained airport."
Whitney added that later, as president of AOPA, Boyer played a crucial role in helping craft the 1997 compromise between the city of Chicago and state of Illinois that gave the field its new five-year lease on life.
Meigs Field has long suffered political attacks. In 1980, then-mayor of Chicago Jane Byrne proposed closing the airport and using the property as the site for the 1992 World's Fair. In 1993, Mayor Richard Daley mounted a fresh assault on Meigs Field by suggesting that the airport would better serve the community as 90 acres of additional parkland.
Under Boyer's leadership, AOPA joined with local pilots who had formed The Friends of Meigs Field to convince Mayor Daley to withdraw his plan to close the airport. AOPA argued Meigs' value for regional business and commerce, for emergency air services, and, as the FAA-designated reliever airport, reducing general aviation traffic at overcrowded O'Hare and Midway airports.
For Chicago citizens weary of delays and congestion at major airports O'Hare International and Midway, AOPA placed full-page advertisements in local Chicago newspapers pointing out that a Meigs closure would worsen the situation. In a typical year, Meigs Field records some 40,000 takeoffs and landings.
AOPA also worked closely with Illinois Governor James Edgar and Illinois Transportation Secretary Kirk Brown, both strong Meigs supporters. In September 1996, AOPA and other plaintiffs filed suit in federal court to stop Chicago from closing Meigs. The state of Illinois filed a similar suit in state court. When both courts declined to issue temporary restraining orders, Chicago closed Meigs Field October 1.
But Governor Edgar, with the support of AOPA and other Meigs advocates, convinced the Illinois Legislature to pass a bill permitting state takeover of the airport. Chicago and Illinois then reached the compromise that lead to reopening and improving Meigs Field. That city/state compromise called for the city to operate and promote the use of Meigs for five years and install a state-funded instrument approach system. In addition, the city was required to make needed repairs to the airport, including fixing runway pavement cracks and sprucing up the terminal building.
Meigs Field reopened February 10, 1997, and Boyer was among the first pilots to land that day. In ceremonies at the field on that day, he told assembled airport supporters that "closing Meigs was more than a city or state issue, and more than a blow to the national air transportation system." He added "to the 340,000 pilots I represent, this closing also symbolized what could happen to their community airports. We're proud to be able to come back today to a Meigs Field with no Xs on the runway."
The Friends of Meigs Field benefit dinner also included a special presentation by legendary "Around the World" voyager Dick Rutan and Academy Award-winning actor and aviator Cliff Robertson. Sporty's Pilot Shop President Hal Shevers helped sponsor the event.
In accepting his award, Boyer pledged AOPA's continued support in the ongoing fight to save Meigs Field and concluded with a quote from famed inspirational aviation author Richard Bach: "We are never given a dream without also being given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however."
The struggle to save Meigs Field in Chicago is part of a larger AOPA effort to preserve all general aviation airports. In 1996, AOPA launched the nationwide Airport Support Network, which designates one AOPA member per airport as the "eyes and ears" of the association, watching for opportunities to build support for the airport and watch for threats to its existence. There are now more than 872 AOPA ASN volunteers nationwide, including George Bullwinkel at Meigs.
Thanks in part to AOPA's efforts, the rate of general aviation airport loss nationwide has been cut nearly in half in recent years.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association was founded in 1939 to represent the interests of general aviation pilots. In the intervening 61 years, it has grown to some 365,000 members, more than half of all active pilots in the country, and has become recognized as one of the leaders in supporting general aviation airports in the United States.