This weekend’s Chicago Air and Water Show will feature some of the military's fastest jets, including the F-22 Raptor and the F/A–18 Hornet used by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels.
Even before the show begins, people this week could hear the booming sounds of aircraft and see them streaking across sunkissed blue skies on the lakefront.
“The Blue Angels — pretty impressive,” said John Rokicki as he watched the famous aerial team making practice runs to and from the Gary/Chicago International Airport on Thursday morning.
Rokicki and his wife, Marie, were sitting in the airport’s parking lot, taking it all in.
“They do a little show for us when we’re sitting here, so it’s kind of nice,” said Marie Rokicki.
The couple from Chicago’s Southeast Side drove just a few miles to get to the airport, which is the staging area every year for the Air and Water Show.
In fact, John Rokicki said he prefers watching the warm-ups to the show itself.
“It’s a lot easier than going through downtown and going to get a spot on the beach and everything else,” he said. “A little less crowded.”
At the airport located about 30 miles south of Chicago, it’s been hectic the past few days with aircraft, pilots, crew members and personnel whizzing through.
“It’s showtime,” said Gary airport director Duane Hayden.
He said many people aren’t aware of the airport’s pivotal role in the show that will bring more than one million people to the lakefront Saturday and Sunday.
“They couldn’t do it without us, frankly,” he said, adding that getting the airport ready takes months of preparation.
“Planning for the airshow, as soon as we come out of winter, as early as April, we start planning to get the infrastructure ready for this,” Hayden said. “By, let’s say July, we’re already prestaging equipment, getting gear in place, coordinating with the [Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events] and the show boss to get everything squared away.
The airport also works with the Federal Aviation Administration on matters including preparing the runaways.
Hayden hopes the airport’s role in the show demonstrates it could play a bigger part in the region’s overall aviation needs.
“We have the second-longest runway in the region outside of O’Hare. Look at our proximity to downtown Chicago,” Hayden said.
There’s been renewed talk in Illinois about developing a third airport for the Chicago region, in Peotone about 40 miles south. The so-called South Suburban Airport is an idea that has been floated for decades.
But Hayden believes the third airport already exists in Gary.
“When you talk about Peotone, the South Suburban Airport, we’re here now, we’re here ready to compliment the Great Lakes Region,” he said.
While the Gary airport doesn’t have commercial flights as of now, it has 17 hangers for general aviation planes, corporate flights and charter service, along with a new international customs center.
The Air and Water Show runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. More details are here.
WBEZ Michael Puente is a general assignment reporter. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.