Midway Airport celebrates 82 years

May 8, 2008 4:24:16 PM PDT
The city of Chicago is moving ahead with plans to privatize Midway Airport which may happen in 2008. But today some neighborhood residents remember a place that was once an onion field, and later, the world's busiest airport.

The birth of airmail made it clear Chicago would need an airport. City officials looked west to a piece of property owned by the Board of Education. A couple of intersecting cinder runways went down and an airport was born.

As Chicago Municipal Airport grew, no one seemed to mind, at least until the late forties, that Hale school sat right alongside a runway. The school was so close that the kids could throw snowballs at the landing aircraft.

"The teachers would be at the black boards performing their lessons and the blackboards would shake and the ink wells would shake like an earthquake, and everyone would freeze, and then continue the lesson," said Chris Lynch, Midway historian.

Lynch, author of a book about Midway's history, is from a pioneering Chicago aviation family. His passion for the "busiest square mile in aviation" is shared by others.

"This is the old airport, and then they expanded the whole thing to make it bigger," said Lynch.

He and other Midway historians form a fraternity of veteran pilots, airport neighbors and others who gather every so often to share pictures and stories. It does not matter if they have seen them or heard them before. They are always fresh and fun.

Pat Bukiri is a member of the group who grew up so close to the end of Runway '31 Left' that he could see the pilots' faces from the top of his house.

"And when the planes came over?the planes would wag their wings and land," said Bukiri, a Midway neighbor. "Now today you couldn't imagine a 707 or a 747 at O'Hare wagging its wings at some kids, but they did it all the time."

Landing at Midway, even in the pre-jet era, was a challenge since space was limited at the end of the runways.

"I remember a couple times thinking I'm going be in that living room but we always made it," said forty-year flight engineer Bob Zilinsky.

Zilinsky spent forty years with American Airlines, the majority of the time as a flight engineer flying in and out of what had become the busiest airport in the world in the late fifties.

Part of Midway's charm was due to its size. It was its own Chicago neighborhood where the pilots and mechanics knew the barbers and bartenders.

In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt flew to Chicago to accept the Democratic nomination for President. A wedding of politics and aviation, the event helped rebuild the public's shaken faith in air travel. The crowds gathered at Midway for the welcome. It was a different time, but one that allowed anybody to see the stars up close and personal.

"I've met people that had breakfast with Harry Truman in the Cloud room and then went with Jimmy Stewart to have a cup of coffee," said Lynch. "That was the scale of the place."

Today when the necessity of aviation security can leave travelers insulated and aggravated, travelers can look back fondly at a time when the challenge was not determining what one was carrying but how much one weighed.

A day's entertainment for some people included making sandwiches and heading to Midway tonight to watch the planes land and take off.

"The smells and sounds. It was like the entire city of Chicago turned on their electric fans and that's what it sounded like when all the engines were running up," said David Kent, another Midway historian.

In 1949, the Midway Airport observation deck generated over $26,000 in concession business, a testament to the attraction of the flying machines and perhaps to the fact that not everyone brought their own sandwiches.

Hale School was torn down in 1955 but for a time before a new school was built, then Mayor Kennelly ordered the two busiest runways at the world's busiest airport be shut down during the hours when the kids were in school.


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