Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Windy City: Part 2: Meigs Field

During the early morning hours of March 30, 2003, a crime was committed against society. And, to the utter consternation and disgust of all affected, the perpetrator got away with it. In the middle of that night, the Mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley, illegally ordered the destruction of the single runway at Meigs Field, an airport known and loved by millions of pilots and virtual pilots all over the world. As a result of the illicit nocturnal destruction of one the world's most famous airports, more than a dozen airplanes were stranded, an airplane enroute to the airport had to be diverted, and an uncounted number of pilots swore that they would never again visit Chicago. Myself included. A visceral anger ran deep in the pilot community and was by no means salved by the measly $33,000 fine levied against the city of Chicago by the Federal government.

Why was this airport so well known? Why was it so popular? You might think that the sentiment for this airport arose from the convenience if offered for access to downtown Chicago. You might think that it was world famous for the same reason. You would only be partially correct. The primary reason that Meigs Field was known and loved by a vast population that may never even sit in an actual airplane or visit the United States was because of the Microsoft Flight Simulator. The Microsoft Flight Sim has a history dating back the earliest days of personal computing.

My first version pre-dates even Microsoft's ownership of the development rights, back when it was developed by a company called subLOGIC and ran on my TRS-80 Model I. In those days, the flight environment was limited to a flat, featureless area of about 10 square miles. The graphics were extremely primitive and by no means realistic. By 1984, however, graphics were beginning to improve and it became possible to render real world geographies, albeit in a very crude manner. And that is when thousands of virtual pilots were introduced to Meigs Field. The simulator could only model small geographic areas, but one of those areas was Chicago. With the default installation settings, all flights started on runway 36 at Meigs.

Here is a progression through the years:

It's hard to understand why Daley would want the airport destroyed. The contemporaneous explanation is at best transparently disingenuous: 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. (per Wikipedia) No moderately sentient being could be fooled by such a ridiculous statement. The same "reasoning" could at a minimum be used to force the closure of O'Hare Airport, one of the largest and busiest airports in the world, and located just a few miles from downtown Chicago. Taken to its logical conclusion, protecting Chicago from terrorist-controlled aircraft would require the closure of every airport on the planet. Ironically, the closing of Meigs Field made the airspace around the Chicago lakefront more accessible to small airplanes than it had been previously.

Here's what it looks like now:

I'm glad I managed to get there before it was too late:

That's all history now, though, and I've recently begun to wonder what the city had done with their new-found real estate. As I found out yesterday, not very much.

As we left the story in Part 1, we were about to drive to the old Meigs Field from Gary International Airport. As we rode along the highway, I took some pictures of the same area of Gary that I had taken aerial photos of not long before:

As I said before, it is unlikely that Gary will ever be known for its scenery. That said, Gary has a long and storied history of providing much of the steel that drove the 20th century's industrial revolution. Today, however, the steel industry has mostly fallen victim to the increased competition inherent in a global market. You could say that today's Gary is an awful place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.

By the time we got to Northerly Park (Blech! I'm going to have to continue to refer to it as Meigs Field), the fog that we had seen north of Chicago had moved down the shore line and was covering most of the island.

While there seemed to be plenty of people around the aquarium and planetarium, the former airport area was nearly bereft of visitors:

Every now and then a pack of Segway riders would trot through:

I'd never seen Segways in the wild before and didn't realize that they ran in packs. Lisa was unable to provide any more information about their behavior in the wild. I was curious as to whether they periodically had challenges for pack leadership in the manner of wolves, and what kind of exotic mating rituals they may have. Wikipedia is surprisingly quiet on those topics as well. Perhaps with appropriate levels of government research funding I could undergo an in-depth, full immersion study project like Dian Fossey, the "Gorillas in the Mist" chick. Something to think about, that. Hmm: "Segways in the Mist" has a ring to it, doesn't it?

As we worked our way deeper into the isolated, unpopulated areas of the "park," we came across artifacts left behind by a more advanced civilization:

The only thing going on in the old terminal building was a girl sitting at a table renting fishing poles.

Saddened and with a deep sense of loss caused by the waste brought upon us by an imperious, dynastic government, we retreated back to what's left of Chicago civilization:

Fortunately, there was plenty of time left for us to visit the city itself and have a grand time riding the Chicago Water Taxis.

Click here for Part 3


  1. Depressing wasn't it? There weren't even any butterflies in the so-called butterfly sanctuary. And I noticed they took down the big commemorative plaque in the terminal dedicated to Merrill Meigs. We never even got a downtown casino out of it... which is the REAL reason I think Daly destroyed the airport.

  2. Ugh, I've long since given up expressing my feelings about Meigs in words.

    As a sound, it probably goes something like "ugggragragghaisssckkk!"