What Happened To Chicago’s Meigs Field?

Readers of a certain age who use to enjoy early versions of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator would know Chicago’s Meigs Field well. The airport abutting Chicago’s downtown skyscrapers was a staple of the game and familiarized millions of people with the airport. Me, I crashed into the water more times than I can remember trying to get over to Midway.

A Beechcraft pictured at Meigs Field in 1973. Photo: Piergiuliano Chesi via Wikimedia Commons

Chicago’s Meigs Field was one of the world’s more iconic airports. Built on reclaimed land, the airport was a triumph of engineering and a predecessor to airports elsewhere built where there was once water. This is the story of Meigs Field and what happened to it.

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Airport named after newspaper baron and aviation fan

You’ll be pleased to know Meigs Field did not get named after a politician. Instead, Merrill Church Meigs was Chicago based newspaper publisher and aviation fan. He argued Chicago needed an airfield within ten minutes of the Loop – an eminently sensible idea.

Mr Meigs got his way when landfill got used to build an airport out on the lake just opposite downtown Chicago. Meigs Airfield opened in 1948. For a time, it was the busiest single-strip airport in the United States.

As a commercial airport, Meigs boomed in the late 1980s. The runway was only 1,189 meters, and a lack of land constrained further expansion. But the airport was popular with turboprops bringing in commuters from surrounding states. Smaller jets, such as McDonnell Douglas DC-9s also flew in for a time.

The old terminal building at Meigs Field. Photo: Tobias rad via Wikimedia Commons

Another nifty feature of Meigs was the scheduled passenger helicopter airline service over to both Midway and O’Hare Airports. 12-seat Sikorsky S-58Cs got used for a time to transfer passengers between the airports.

Over the years, 12 different airlines served Meigs Field. Well into the 1990s, several airlines were still flying in. United Express was flying in from  Lansing and Springfield. Trans State Airlines was also flying to Springfield. Blade Helicopters was running regular services out to O’Hare and Midway, a successor to the earlier Sikorsky flights.

Fifty-five years after opening, it was all over for Meigs Field. What happened?

Why did Meigs Field close down?

The Chicago Parks District opened the airport. The Parks District is a local government agency that operates alongside the City of Chicago. The two agencies usually work together closely.

In the early 1990s, the then Chicago Mayor, Richard Daley, said he wanted to close Meigs and replace it with a park. A couple of years later, the Parks District declined to renew the airport lease, and the field closed down for six months in late 1996. In early 1997, the airport re-opened.

Hindering Richard Daley were various interest groups who wanted to retain the airport as a useful piece of infrastructure. They used the courts and legislation to keep the mayor at bay.

In the early 2000s, a deal got done to keep the airport open for another 25 years. In exchange for expanding O’Hare, Meigs would stay open. But legislation needed to pass through the United States Senate, and it didn’t.

Meigs Field after Mayor Daley’s bulldozers gouged giant Xs along the runway. Photo: Zargnut via Wikimedia Commons

City had control of the airport

The basic problem for people who wanted to keep Meigs Field open was that the City of Chicago owned and controlled the airport. The airport ran on a lease, but that lease had expired, and the lawyers hadn’t built renewal options and clauses into the lease.

In 2003, Richard Daley made his move. He literally wrecked the airport. Overnight, city work crews took bulldozers into the airfield and dug holes in the runway, rendering it unusable. It was illegal. Because the airport had a charted instrument approach, it was required to give 30 days notice of closure to the Federal Aviation Authority. The Parks District did not.

The City was also later found to have misappropriated FAA airport improvement program funds (later repaid). There was also the small matter of parked aircraft now stranded at the airport.yor

Mayor sends bulldozers in at night to destroy runway

The response was a mixture of fury and grudging respect. Fury because due process got ignored, grudging respect because Richard Daley made it happen.

Richard Daley was an interesting figure. He got things done, but what he did at Meigs was a turning point for him and his power base.

“Chicago had made a pact with Daley. The city ignored the corruption, the cronyism, the deals, all that wild spending that would eventually bring the city to the verge of financial ruin at the end of his reign. Chicago shut its eyes to all that,” wrote John Kass in the Chicago Tribune in 2011.

“After Meigs, things were different between Chicago and Daley.”

Small aircraft pakred at the old Meigs Field. Photo: David Wilson via Wikimedia Commons

Meigs gets converted into a urban park

Despite continuing efforts to get Meigs re-opened, the midnight raid sealed Meig’s fate. By 2003, the airport and its infrastructure got demolished. Richard Daley, now out of office, got his park, now called Northerly Island. The reclaimed land had prairie grasses, a small beachfront, a lake, and hosted concerts.  But it falls far short of the verdant parklands and wildlife haven Mayor Daley envisaged.

In 2019, the old airport site generated US$55,000 for Chicago City, mostly via its use as a concert venue and through concessions. When Meigs operated as an airport, it pumped hundreds of millions into the City’s coffers each year.

From airport to parkland, what the old Meigs Field looks like today. Photo: DwightSchruteDunderMifflin via Wikimedia Commons

The future of Meigs Field

Despite it been nearly 20 years since the last plane touched down at Meigs, there’s still a push to see the land restored to its former use. Nobody expects to see United Express jets touch down again. Instead, its drones, helicopters, and rideshare services like AspenJet, that could use the field in the future.

“Now, when there is a race to produce new types of flying transportation called ‘V-TOL’s’ that operate like a large drone or small helicopter, already in use in some places and the explosion of small jet aircraft travel, including ‘shared ride’ services, this airport could be exactly the facility that a growing modern city needs,” Chicago mayoral candidate Willie Wilson told the AOPA Foundation website last year.

Meigs played a big role in modern aviation

It’s an interesting idea. Alas, Willie Wilson did not win the 2019 mayoral election. The fate of Meigs Field seems sealed. Mayor Daley always thought the airport elitist. Arguably, the average Chicagoan would rather parkland than a small airport serving the jet-set crowd. What is inarguable is the role Meigs Field played in aviation.

Via Microsoft, it turned millions of kids into aviation fans and probably channeled many into aviation-based careers. Meigs was a successful prototype for airports built on reclaimed land. It was also a model for the successful inner-urban airport we now see at places like London City.

Finally, there are worst fates than been turned into a park. A kid could still stand in the grass and imagine what was once there. You couldn’t do that if it were a shopping mall.