The Day They Shut Down Meigs Field

This former Chicago landmark is a cautionary tale for small airports everywhere.

This used to be an airport. Now it’s grass. (flickr /Christine)
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On March 31, 2003, one of the best known general aviation airports in the world suddenly closed. Meigs Field, the downtown Chicago landmark and default airport of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator video game series, shut down without warning and, according to airport supporters, illegally. Pilots of aircraft there awoke that Monday morning to find large Xs gouged into the runway, with heavy construction equipment placed atop for good measure. After several days’ negotiations, aircraft were allowed to depart from the parallel taxiway one by one, never to return.

The decision to shut down Meigs Field was made by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, ostensibly to prevent terrorists from using the field as cover to mount an attack. While that was a legitimate concern, many contend the true motive was Daley’s long-held wish to turn Meigs into a large park.

The airport was built in 1948, during general aviation’s post-World War II glory days, and provided convenient access to Chicago for businesspeople and casual aviators alike. Named for Merrill Meigs, publisher of the Chicago Herald and Examiner and an aviation fan, Meigs Field was immensely popular; several runway extensions and facilities were later added.

Daley first shut the field down in 1996 with the intention of turning the airport into parkland, in order to boost slumping Chicago real estate values and shore up political support by closing a symbol of elite privilege. Though that move was sudden, Xs marking the runway as off-limits were only painted on, and soon after, the state of Illinois legislated the airport back into operation. Meig’s future seemed assured by late 2001 when, to close a deal to expand nearby O’Hare International, Chicago’s primary international airport and one of the busiest in the world, Daley was forced to agree to operate Meigs until 2026. When the O’Hare deal stalled, Daley closed Meigs once and for all, incurring a $33,000 fine for ignoring the 30-day advance warning required by the Federal Aviation Administration. (The O’Hare expansion was eventually approved separately.)

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