Midway Has Little Room for Error

Dec. 11--Descend for a landing at Midway Airport aboard a fast-moving jet and you feel as if the plane is going to clip homeowners' TV aerials in the seconds before the wheels hit the runway.

And thus it has been at Midway for decades, as city neighborhoods have grown toward, and up to the very boundaries, of what was a small airport from the start--built on a 1-square-mile parcel and designed to handle airplanes powered by propellers.

But economics and politics, together with aviation technology, have conspired to ensure Midway's continued operation at 55th Street and Cicero Avenue as far into the future as anyone can foresee.

Nevertheless, inevitable questions about the airport's safety have been raised following the death of a young boy whose family's car was crushed Thursday when a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 landing in a snowstorm plowed through a perimeter fence and onto Central Avenue.

Mayor Richard Daley, who has helped to breathe new life into the little field, praised its safety record in the wake of the accident: "It has been tremendous over ... many years."

But it doesn't take an aeronautical engineer to know that, though Midway may be in compliance with all applicable Federal Aviation Administration regulations, its tight dimensions can be unforgiving when something goes wrong.

Though some airports have the equivalent of multiple football field lengths of open space at the ends of their runways, Midway's 31 Center has only 82 feet between the end of the runway and a barrier wall that separates the airfield from the street, the FAA said.

Midway can operate with such a small overrun zone because the airport fits into a grandfather clause under old rules.

"I flew out of there for 20 years in jets and never had a problem," said a former pilot for the defunct Midway Airlines and now a captain for a major domestic carrier, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. But "you have to be on your toes. You cannot relax going into Midway. It's not dangerous. You just have to be on top of things."

Said Greg Feith, a former investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board: "The airport originally was built to handle air traffic of a size and nature that at the time was state of the art. Large turboprop airliners going in there didn't need as much runway. Airplanes like the 737 ... can operate safely on shorter runways. It's just that it takes more vigilance from pilots ..."

Midway has a checkered 79-year history of very high ups and near-final downs.

Municipal Airport, as it first was called before being renamed years later after World War II's Battle of Midway, opened May 8, 1926, on farmland leased from the Chicago Board of Education.

The first plane to land was a Curtiss Carrier Pigeon owned by National Air Transport and flown from Maywood just for the occasion.

Midway's burgeoning operations by the 1950s made it the busiest airport in the world, the place where presidents and world figures, sports stars and Hollywood actors, made their arrivals in Chicago. Passenger traffic doubled during the decade, hitting a high of 10 million in 1959.

But then came jets.

Demolishing homes and businesses to expand Midway and extend its runways into established neighborhoods would have been a political impossibility and perhaps a practical one as well.

So the late Mayor Richard J. Daley decided to develop a former military field in a sleepy area miles and miles northwest of the Loop. It became known as O'Hare International Airport, and the major airlines with their new jet fleets flocked to the sprawling facility.

Midway fell into a steep spiral of decline, taking numerous businesses on the Southwest Side with it.

By 1963, the passenger total had plummeted to 418,000.

Safety continued to be an issue, however.

On Dec. 8, 1972 -- 33 years to the day before last week's accident -- a United Airlines jet approaching for a landing crashed in a dense residential area near 71st Street and Pulaski Road, killing 43 onboard and two on the ground. Pilot error was determined to be the cause.

Midway's turnaround began in 1979 when the low-cost airline that bore the airport's name, a child of federal aviation industry deregulation, began operations with jets small enough to be accommodated by the airfield.

When Midway Airlines started service at the airport, "there were cobwebs in the terminal, and water coming through the ceiling," the carrier's chairman, David Hinson, said in a 1987 Tribune interview.

Hinson's airline ultimately expanded too aggressively and went bankrupt, but other discount carriers, particularly Southwest, kept Midway humming.

But the airport's existence was to be threatened again.

In February 1990, Mayor Richard M. Daley dropped a bombshell. Faced with the possible development of a major airport in Indiana or the far south suburbs that could compete with O'Hare, he announced plans for a new Chicago field near Lake Calumet on a site 15 times Midway's size.

The Southwest Side airport's operations would be transferred upon completion of the bigger new field, city officials said.

But Midway was destined to live on as politics, mixed with the practical problems of developing Lake Calumet, killed that project.

Well aware of the enormous economic impact of his airports, Daley decided to concentrate his efforts on expanding O'Hare, in part by adding a runway, and turning Midway into something as modern as its size would allow.

Last year, at a time when Midway's passenger volume had grown to more than 18 million a year, the mayor officiated at ceremonies marking the completion of the airport's $927 million redevelopment. In a remarkable project, the old terminal was demolished piece by piece, as a new terminal was constructed in its place, all without disrupting the airport's daily operation.

The Midway revival has brought with it a wave of new commercial development in the surrounding area.

"The airport was 'closed' for many years," Daley said Friday. "Many people were laid off, lost their jobs. This is one of the most successful, growing airports in the country ... It has been a great nucleus for the rebirth of the South and Southwest Sides."

The number of gates increased to 43 from 29 in the redevelopment project, but even the miracles of modern technology and construction could not work magic on the length of the runways.

"At O'Hare, you can make a mistake and nothing happens because you have lots and lots of room," said the former Midway Airlines pilot.

When he would land at Midway, however, he said he took special precautions. An airplane following the airport's electronic glide slope touches concrete about 1,600 feet down the 6,522-foot Runway 31 Center, he said.

He used to dip below the glide slope after getting a clear view of the field to land sooner and have the luxury of more runway in which to stop.

A shorter runway can handle safe landings without problem, "all things being equal," said Grant Brophy, director of flight safety and security at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

"Then you start throwing in the 'what ifs'--what if it's a wet day, a rainy day, what if it's sleet? That changes the margin of error. The runway then becomes too short--not just in theory but in the reality of operating the aircraft."

By Gary Washburn and James Janega