Air & Water Show

It is the event on the Chicago calendar that I looked forward to the most. The Chicago Air & Water show. I’m not a fan of the military, but something about those planes gets my blood pumping. It’s a combination of the speed and the awe that a man-made object could do the things that they do. I had seen it a couple times when I was a kid and I loved it. But during my high school and college years I didn’t get the chance to see it.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie in Chicago

When I returned to the city and started working 9 to 5, my excitement for it returned. Our office was on the top floor of a low-rise building just steps from the lake. One Thursday afternoon, there was that signature shrill followed by the loud deep rumble as they passed overhead. Everyone (OK, only us newbies) rushed to the window to see what it was. The practice for the airshow that weekend was taking place. We could not see anything from our windows so we were forced to keep working while it seemed the jets were passing only feet above our building. On the following day we walked down to the beach during our lunch hour to catch a glimpse of their practice. It was both a practice and publicity as the sounds of jets rumbled through the canyons of downtown and into the surrounding neighborhoods. Signalling to everyone of this weekends event.
Photo courtesy of ozmodier.

It’s an event that draws two million people to the lakefront. An ideal setting with the city behind you, the lake spreading out in front, and the show overhead. It’s a well planned event starting slow and rising to a huge finale. The start is usually the water portion with rescue divers (my uncle used to fly the CFD chopper), jet skis, and pontoon boats that are normally visible only to those nearby. Then the large planes like the B-52 bombers or the B-1 bombers are brought out. These are followed by bi-plane or prop-plane squadrons doing synchronized manouvers. There is also an acrobatic prop-plane performing their tricks. Mixed in are segments displaying the features of jets like the F-15 and the F-16. Occasionally the Apache or Blackhawk attack helicopters come out alsoPhoto courtesy of Stephanie in Chicago.

Photo courtesy of ozmodier.

Photo courtesy of Adarsh Bhat.

The finale alternates between two groups, the Air Force Thunderbirds or the Navy Blue Angels. For me, this is by far the highlight of the show. They flyby both slow and fast. The sound gives me chills. I can’t explain why. They perform the show in front and above the beach between North Avenue and Fullerton Parkway. They would normally flyby parallel to the beach though sometimes come in from other directions in front. One interesting aspect of this type of show is that “backstage” is behind you or anywhere out of eyesight. For instance, a plane can go into a vertical climb until it is nearly invisible to the eye. Once they reach that point, the pilot can then turn to the direction they need to prepare for the next manuever. You don’t see them again until they return. There are many gaps in the show where they are out setting up for the next element. For me it almost seems a tease, because you find yourself scouring the sky to see where they are or where they’ll be coming from.Photo courtesy of ozmodier.

Part of that anxiousness may be due to one of the final elements of the show. They have a manuever where two planes are each coming toward the beach from the right and left. Your concentration is on them to see what they do when they meet in front of you. Just before they meet there is a huge rumble as one of other jets has come in low behind you completely catching everyone off guard. It gives you goosebumps.
Photo courtesy of ozmodier.

Other than at the beach, many watch the show from their hi-rise condos or from their rooftops. It gives a different perspective than at show center. We lived in a three story building the four years before moving here. The first year, we climbed the ladder up to the roof and I found the show just as fun. Since we lived behind the hi-rises lining the lakefront, our perspective was the backstage portion. We could watch them dive into show center for the manuevers then circle out over the city to setup for the next one.
Photo courtesy of zech zoo.

The final element of the show was very exciting from our location. In the maneuver, they start from high above show center. They come straight down and fan out to where they are flying low over the land/water in six different directions. They all go out, turn around, then return retracing their path back up to the sky. The show would end with them disappearing into the sky above. The thrilling part from our location is that the planes are not more than a hundred feet above where we were standing on the roof. You could make out all the details and see the pilot even at that speed. It was quite something to experience. Photo courtesy of ozmodier.

My excitement for the show has even led me to create a photo pool on Flickr. That is where all of these photos have come from and you can see more great photos in the pool. As much as I’m trying to convey the experience, it is really something that has to be experienced first hand to get the full sensation.

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~ by Frank on September 3, 2006.

One Response to “Air & Water Show”

  1. I work downtown, apparently in the supersonic flight path, a discovery I made in the middle of a psychotherapy session as the jets screamed past the rattling glass windows of the office. The jets came and just kept coming. I found it difficult to keep my composure, at least on the outside.

    Inside I thought, must be a bit like Lebanon before the ceasefire. I thought about my son in the military there. I imagined the roaring thunder is good news to him. But I’m a mother, and the whole noisy experience rattled my inner cage.

    As a child and a young adult, I found the air and water show fascinating but noisy. This year I just wanted those airborne testosterone displays to go away.

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