Chicago Moments in Gaming History: Meigs Field in Microsoft Flight Simulator

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Chicago Moments in Gaming History” is a series focusing on games that have in-game connections to the city.

Even if we couldn’t feel it yet, in 1982 the foundation of the video game industry was well into the erosion that would lead to the big crash the following year (which, I found out while researching this piece, had the awesome knickname of “Atari Shock” in Japan). Luckily for PC gamers, that was also the year that Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.00 was released, allowing them to fly high above the coming turmoil in an absurdly realistic fashion.

Flight Simulator 1.00, IBM PC, 1982

Well, realistic in terms of flight mechanics. Not surprisingly, even the most powerful hardware of 1982 couldn’t render much more than basic flatland geometry. Still, the psuedo-3D visuals impressed for the time, and in those early years especially the MFS games were a perfect litmus test for how powerful and graphically optimized your PC was. In addition, because of the frequency of its “sequels” and ports to various other platforms, looking through screenshots of the various versions of the games serves as a great visual history for both the progression of PC graphics technology, and the differences between various hardware platforms of the time.

Flight Simulator II, Apple II, 1983

There was something else that was quite special about the MFS series, and that was the default starting area: Chicago’s own Meigs Field. With its single runway and island location, far from any tall buildings and of course any kind of hills or mountains, Meigs was a great place for amateur digital pilots to begin their flight training. It wasn’t very recognizable in earlier versions, save for the very basic wire-frame Sears Tower that was stuck in the landscape nearby, but it certainly got closer to the real thing as the years wore on. Many budding pilots grew a fondness for Meigs primarily from that game, even if they hadn’t actually been there. Not unlike every nook and cranny of “World 1-1” being permanently etched directly onto the brain of every gamer born before 1990, fans of the MFS series had developed a special relationship with the airport as they started so many of their piloting adventures there – hundreds if not thousands of flights, over a span nearly 15 years and across almost as many core installments.

Then, on one infamous night in 2003, Mayor Richard M. Daley ordered construction crews to carve giant X’s in Meigs’ runway, rendering the airport unusable. I won’t go into the reasons here as this isn’t a political blog, so feel free to look into it yourself if

Flight Simulator 4.0, DOS, 1989

you’re curious and don’t already know the story – and if you’re a Chicagoan that isn’t very likely – but what is relevant to this feature is that Meigs was officially closed soon after and Harrison Ford was way pissed off about it. He and the Mayor traded barbs on the situation for years, with Ford telling the Sun-Times as long after the fact as 2010 that he was “still livid about it”.

Of course, plenty of other people were angry about what happened to Meigs too, and a whole lot of them had never even been there. Longtime Flight Simulator players were crushed by Meigs closure, flooding message boards with tales of crying over the news and saying that their countless hours simulating flights over Meigs are what specifically led to them eventually becoming pilots. Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004 was the final game to officially feature Meigs, with its follow-up, 2006’s Flight Simulator X, still having Chicago available to fly over but only showing a barren spot where Meigs used to be. However, Meigs fans can install any number of third-party add-ons that put Meigs back into this particular version of the game – as well as remove Meigs from previous versions if they so choose. Coincidentally, Flight Simulator X would be the final installment in the original series. A revival attempt last year, a free-to-play title called simply Microsoft Flight, was short-lived, with no plans to continue its development beyond its final title update in September of 2012.

When Mayor Daley announced in 2010 that he would not seek a seventh mayoral term, many private pilots

Flight Simulator 5.0, DOS, 1993

began to buzz about the possibility of Meigs being reopened following Daley’s retirement from office. These plans never materialized, and the opening of the Charter One Pavillion concert venue on the location in 2005 basically put the final nail in the coffin of there being any hope of Meigs, or any other type of airfield, to be rebuilt on the land.

Meigs Field has also made notable appearances in a few other games, all land-based. The 1999 Windows game Midtown Madness, a pioneering title in open-world racing, was based entirely in Chicago and allowed players to

drive through Meigs. The following year, action racing game Driver 2 for PlayStation also had Meigs as part of its polygonal interpretation of the city. Most recently, the 2007 multiplatform racing game Need for Speed: ProStreet had a track called “Chicago Airfield”, which was a racetrack

“Chicago Airfield”, Need for Speed: ProStreet, 2007

set up in Meigs’ former location.

One of the many great things about video games is that it lets people explore places that don’t exist anymore. And even as the years go on and Meigs becomes a more and more distant memory, there will always be ways to visit Meigs in a virtual space. So went a popular joke around the time of its demolition, “Meigs Field wasn’t destroyed…it was just uninstalled.” Luckily for us, we can always reinstall it, even if it’s just via pixels and polygons.

A special thanks to Josef Havlik, who runs a website dedicated to the history of flight simulators and gave me permission to use the screenshots from his site in this article.

Check out the previous Installment in this series – Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City