The WBEZ guide to Chicago’s Air and Water Show

It’s back!

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels, seen from North Avenue Beach, fly over Lake Michigan during an scaled-back Air and Water Show in 2021.
The U.S. Navy Blue Angels, seen from North Avenue Beach, fly over Lake Michigan during an scaled-back Air and Water Show in 2021. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times
The U.S. Navy Blue Angels, seen from North Avenue Beach, fly over Lake Michigan during an scaled-back Air and Water Show in 2021.
The U.S. Navy Blue Angels, seen from North Avenue Beach, fly over Lake Michigan during an scaled-back Air and Water Show in 2021. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

The WBEZ guide to Chicago’s Air and Water Show

It’s back!

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Love it or hate it, the full-scale Chicago Air and Water Show is back this weekend for the first time since 2019.

Two million people are expected to gather by the lakefront for the free event. And, even though the weekend’s forecast is calling for rain, organizers say the show will go on.

“We have every intention of the full show taking place,” said Jennifer Johnson Washington, a deputy commissioner at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. “Should we have severe weather, the show could pause while we wait for a front to move through … if we’re just talking about cloud cover, they can adjust the show in terms of altitude.”

Whether you are eager to watch the dozens of air acts in amazement or are among those already loathing the decibel hike, here’s what you need to know.

People watch the Air and Water Show from Lakefront Trail next to North Avenue Beach in 2018.
People watch the Air and Water Show in 2018. Victor Hilitski / For the Chicago Sun-Times

When is this happening? The festivities (and noise) kick off on Friday with practice flights and will continue through Sunday afternoon at North Avenue Beach. The show will start at 10 a.m. and continue until 2 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday.

Where can I watch? The center of the show is North Avenue Beach, but the viewing area stretches from Oak Street all the way to Fullerton Avenue. For a prime seat, viewers should arrive early in order to beat the crowds — the viewing area opens to the public at 6 a.m. on both days of the show.

Chicago Air and Water Show announcer Herb Hunter as he narrated the show atop a stage at North Avenue Beach in 2015.
Chicago Air and Water Show announcer Herb Hunter as he narrated the show atop a stage at North Avenue Beach in 2015. Vincent D. Johnson / For the Chicago Sun-Times

How do I get there? Public transit is the way to go, mostly because there is no public parking at the beach over the weekend and limited parking at nearby Lincoln Park Zoo. Extended routes and additional buses and trains will be added to accommodate the crowds — see detailed plans here. If you must drive, park in the Millennium Park garages, which will have free shuttle buses running to and from North Avenue Beach.

What should I bring? Regardless of weather, Washington encourages attendees to plan for a day at the beach: Pack plenty of water and wear sunscreen, even if it’s cloudy. Ear plugs and binoculars are recommended, but these items are prohibited: Pets (service animals are allowed), grills, alcohol, drones, fireworks, tents or canopies, balloons, kites and flagpoles.

What if I’m a total newbie? If you want to check out the festivities, but know nothing about planes, Herb Hunter will be there to guide you through it. As the “voice of the show,” his narration of each performer’s choreography will play throughout the viewing area for novice and seasoned spectators alike, as he has done for more than 35 years. The show will also be broadcasted live on WBBM Newsradio 780 / 105.9.

For the love of Pete, how can I escape the noise? Leave town immediately. And you’ll want to go farther than Northwest Indiana because the planes take off and land at Gary/Chicago International Airport.

More information can be found on the official event website.

U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute team member lands on North Avenue beach at the Air and Water Show in 2018.
U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute team member lands on North Avenue beach at the Air and Water Show in 2018. Victor Hilitski / For the Chicago Sun-Times

What’s notable this year

Fan favorites returning this year include the Army parachute team floating down to earth from thousands of feet above. A rare joint appearance of the U.S. Air Force Heritage Flight and U.S. Navy Legacy Flights is new this year

One person who will be notably absent is Rudy Malnati Jr., a member of the famous pizza family who served as the show’s “air boss” for more than 30 years. Malnati, who died of cancer last December, had attended every Air and Water Show since it began in 1959, his wife told the Sun-Times. Performances this weekend will be dedicated in his memory, including a special “missing man” dedication from the Navy.

“He was such a critical part of the show,” Washington said. “We’re excited to continue in his memory and try to make him proud.”

This year’s show will feature a wide variety of both vintage and modern aircrafts. While the specifics of the schedule is determined the morning of the show, here are some of the 18 military and eight civilian acts slated to appear this year:

  • U.S. Navy Blue Angels: Back with gravity-defying moves, the Blue Angels have been flying for audiences since 1946. Their aerial maneuvers are performed in Super Hornet jets.

  • U.S. Army Parachute Team Golden Knights: Members of the parachute team will jump out of an aircraft from 12,000 feet above the ground and land with precision on North Avenue Beach.

  • U.S. Air Force Heritage Flight and U.S. Navy Legacy Flights: For the first time, the crews will perform together at the Chicago Air and Water Show. The Navy has also provided an additional fighter plane to its Legacy Flight in order to incorporate the “Missing Man” dedication to Malnati.

  • Civilian performers include: Susan Dacy, a stunt pilot who performs barrel rolls and other maneuvers in her vintage biplane “Big Red;” The Chicago Fire Department Air/Sea Rescue; and the Chicago Police Department helicopter

The Air and Water Show circa 1974.
The Air and Water Show circa 1974. Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum

Hey, history buffs: Did you know?

The city’s Air and Water Show is a summertime staple and the longest running show of its kind. But when it first got off the ground in 1959 it was a much humbler affair — beginning with a budget of just $88.

The first year the show was held there were “rowing contests, a watermelon-eating contest, and there was a greased pole kids could climb,” Gerry Souter, who wrote The Chicago Air and Water Show: A History of Wings Above the Waves, told Curious City in 2018. He added that “everyone had a pretty good time.”

WBEZ’s Mark LeBien contributed to this report.

Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.