Midway Has Little Room for Error

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.

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.

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