Merrill C. Meigs Field Airport (ICAO: KCGX) was a single-strip airport, which operated from December 1948 until March 2003, on Northerly Island, an artificial peninsula on Lake Michigan; Northerly Island also was the site of the Century of Progress (1933–34) in Chicago. Meigs Field airport was closed when the mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley, ordered the landing strip destroyed with bulldozers, without the thirty-day warning required by the regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Meigs Field airport was opened on 10 December 1948, and, by 1955, had become the busiest single-strip airport in the U.S. The latest air traffic tower was built in 1952 and the terminal was dedicated in 1961. The airfield was named for Merrill C. Meigs, publisher of the Chicago Herald and Examiner and an aviation advocate.
Northerly Island, owned by the Chicago Park District, is the only lakefront structure to be built based on Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago. The island was to be populated by trees and grass for the public enjoyment by all. However, drafted less than six years after the Wright brothers' historic flight, the 1909 plan did not envision any airports for Chicago.
The airport was a familiar sight on the downtown lakefront. It was also well known as the default takeoff field in many early versions of the popular Microsoft Flight Simulator software program. It is an airport that is featured in Microsoft's Midtown Madness computer game (1999) and Reflections' Driver 2 video game, which are based in Chicago. The airport area is also the central location of the short documentary film Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames.
The Main Terminal Building was operated by the Chicago Department of Aviation and contained waiting areas as well as office and counter space. The runway at Meigs Field was nearly 3,900 by 150 ft (1,189 by 46 m). In addition, there were four public helicopter pads at the south end of the runway, near McCormick Place. The north end of the runway was near the Adler Planetarium.
The 1909 Plan of Chicago had no provision for air service. Chicago's first airplane flight took place in 1910 in Grant Park, adjacent to Northerly Island, with an international aeronautical exhibition at the same location in 1911. Then, in 1918, regular air mail service to Grant Park began. However, Grant Park was unsuitable for the city's growing aviation needs.
Daniel Burnham died in 1912. By 1916, Edward H. Bennett, co-author of the Plan of Chicago, wrote that a lakefront location would be most suitable for an airport serving the central business district. In 1920, Chicagoans approved a bond referendum to pay for landfill construction of the peninsula, and in 1922 construction began. That same year Mayor William Hale Thompson recommended locating the downtown airport there. A few years later the Chicago South Park Commission voted in agreement. In 1928, the Chicago Association of Commerce, representing the business community, also advocated for the lakefront airport.
The Great Depression put numerous civic plans on hold, including the airport. Construction continued on the peninsula itself, with the 1933 World's Fair occupying the just-completed peninsula. In the 1930s the Chicago City Council and Illinois State Legislature passed resolutions to create the airport, but both the poor economy and World War II intervened.
Almost immediately after World War II, in 1946, airport construction began. That same year the Illinois state legislature deeded 24 acres (9.7 ha) of adjacent lake bottom to Chicago for additional landfill, to make the property large enough for a suitable runway. Aviation technology had advanced rapidly during World War II. The airport opened on December 10, 1948, in a grand ceremony.
On June 30, 1950, the airport was officially renamed Merrill C. Meigs Field. Various improvements took place over the years, including the 1952 opening of an air traffic control tower, the 1961 opening of a new terminal building (dedicated by Richard J. Daley), runway lengthening, and the late 1990s charting of two FAA instrument approaches allowing landings in poor weather conditions. By the 1970s Meigs Field became a critical facility for aeromedical transport of patients and transplant organs to downtown hospitals as medical transportation technology modernized.
Meigs Field also provided commuter airline service to the public, peaking in the late 1980s as Mayor Richard M. Daley took office. During the 1960s to 1980s, typical destinations were Springfield and Carbondale, and typical aircraft were the Beechcraft Model 99 and Piper PA-31 Navajo. In the late 1970s Air Illinois operated the 44-passenger turboprop Hawker Siddeley HS 748 at Meigs, the largest aircraft to use it on a regular basis.
Numerous VIPs used the airport to maintain security and to avoid inconveniencing the Chicago traveling public, including President John F. Kennedy. In a common pattern, Air Force One would land at a larger area airport, and the President would take a helicopter to Meigs Field to avoid the complications of a Secret Service escort via Chicago's expressways.
On October 15, 1992 a Boeing 727 that was donated from United Airlines to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry made its final landing at Meigs, on its way to be transported to the museum to become an exhibit. This was notable because Meigs' runway was somewhat shorter than others that this type of aircraft normally uses. Still, the lightly loaded jet did not require all of the runway. The 727 was then barged off the airport, prepared for exhibit and further barged to the museum.
Starting in the early 1990s, the Chicago-area Tuskegee Airmen, Inc provided free airplane rides every month and aviation education to Chicago youth at Meigs Field. Thousands of children took their first airplane rides there until 2003.
Former airline service
- Air Illinois
- Britt Airways
- Chicago Helicopter Airways
- Great Lakes Airlines (as Great Lakes Aviation dba United Express)
- Hub Airlines
- Ozark Airlines
Demolition and closure
In 1994, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced plans to close the airport and build a park in its place. Northerly Island, where the airport was located, was owned by the Chicago Park District which refused to renew the airport lease in 1996. The city briefly closed the airport from the expiration of the lease in October 1996 through February 1997 when pressure from the state legislature persuaded them to reopen the airport.
In 2001, a compromise was reached between Chicago, the State of Illinois, and others to keep the airport open for the next twenty-five years. However, the federal legislation component of the deal did not pass the United States Senate. In a controversial move on the night of Sunday, March 30, 2003, Mayor Daley ordered city crews to destroy the runway immediately by bulldozing large X-shaped gouges into the runway surface in the middle of the night. The required notice was not given to the Federal Aviation Administration or the owners of airplanes tied down at the field, and as a result sixteen planes were left stranded at an airport with no operating runway, and an inbound flight had to be diverted by Air Traffic Control, because of equipment scattered on the runway. The stranded aircraft were later allowed to depart from Meigs' 3,000-foot (910 m) taxiway.
"To do this any other way would have been needlessly contentious," Daley explained at a news conference Monday morning, March 31. Mayor Daley defended his actions, described as "appalling" by general aviation interest groups, by claiming it would save the City of Chicago the effort of further court battles before the airport could close. He claimed that safety concerns required the closure, due to the post-September 11 risk of terrorist-controlled aircraft attacking the downtown waterfront near Meigs Field. In reality, closing the airport made the airspace less restrictive and therefore more of a security risk. When the airport was open, downtown Chicago was within Meigs Field's Class D airspace, requiring all aircraft to have two-way radio communication with the tower at Meigs in order to fly. With Meigs destroyed, the buildings in downtown Chicago are now in Class E/G airspace, which allows any airplane to legally fly as close as 1,000 feet (300 m) from these buildings with no radio communication at all.
"The issue is Daley's increasingly authoritarian style that brooks no disagreements, legal challenges, negotiations, compromise or any of that messy give-and-take normally associated with democratic government," the Chicago Tribune editorialized. "The signature act of Richard Daley's 22 years in office was the midnight bulldozing of Meigs Field," according to Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn. "He ruined Meigs because he wanted to, because he could," columnist John Kass wrote of Daley in the Chicago Tribune.
While aviation interests and commentators decried the move, supporters of the park proposal praised Daley for saving the city from costly court battles and returning the site to its original purposes. For example, the Lake Michigan Federation (later the Alliance for the Great Lakes) released in February 2001 an urban wilderness plan for the site. Instead of calling it "Northerly Island" a reference to the northernmost landmass of four others that were never built under the 1909 Plan of Chicago, "Sanctuary Point" would allow access for many more people than the fairly exclusive use as an airstrip.
On July 28, 2003, an aircraft flying to Oshkosh, Wisconsin from Maine to the Experimental Aircraft Association Annual Convention made an emergency landing on the grass next to the demolished Meigs Field runway. Mayor Daley accused the pilot of intentionally landing in order to "embarrass" him, despite the FAA's statement that the pilot "did the correct thing" in landing the plane at Meigs. After effecting electrical repairs, the plane safely took off and continued to Oshkosh.
Interest groups, led by the Friends of Meigs Field, attempted to use the courts to reopen Meigs Field over the following months, but because the airport was owned by the City of Chicago and had paid back its federal aviation grants, the courts ruled that Chicago was allowed to close the field. The FAA fined the city $33,000 for closing an airport with a charted instrument approach without giving the required 30-day notice. This was the maximum fine the law allowed at the time. In the aftermath, the "Meigs Legacy provision" was passed into law, increasing the maximum fine per day from $1,100 to $10,000.
On September 17, 2006, the city dropped all legal appeals and agreed to pay the $33,000 fine as well as repay $1 million in misappropriated FAA Airport Improvement Program funds that it used to destroy the airfield and build Northerly Island Park.
By August 2003, construction crews had finished the demolition of Meigs Field. Northerly Island is now a park that features prairie grasses and strolling paths. In 2005, the 7,500 seat Charter One Pavilion, which hosts music concerts in the summer, opened on the site. The island also has a modest beach named 12th Street Beach.
Other Chicagoans had a different vision for the lakefront area. After the 2003 closure, the Friends of Meigs Field introduced a new plan, "Parks and Planes", which promoted the idea of an aviation museum, small operating runway, and park land on the property. This plan suggested that Chicago could qualify for federal funds earmarked for airport property acquisition to purchase many more acres of parkland in Chicago's neighborhoods and to improve the Chicago Park District's maintenance budget.
Virtual gaming environment
Meigs was the default airport for the Microsoft Flight Simulator series until Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004, though the airport remains operational in Flight Simulator 2004. In Flight Simulator X, it was completely removed from the scenery. Third party add-ons are available to add Meigs back in, while others close or remove the airport for previous versions of the game.
In Midtown Madness released by Microsoft in 1999, the player is free to drive around a computer-generated version of the Meigs field, as well as in Driver 2, released in 2000 by Reflections. The airport was also featured in the 2007 racing game Need for Speed: ProStreet as a race track.
As of 2015, Meigs Airfield is still operational within X-Plane 9 and 10, and the user can take off and land there.
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Media related to Meigs Field at Wikimedia Commons
- Chicago Park District Northerly Island
- Friends of Meigs Field
- Historical info, including aerial photos of the bulldozer damage
- Volkan Yuksel's October 28, 2007 dated Panoramic photo from SE of the island