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Chicago Air & Water Show facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
Chicago Air & Water Show
Chicago Air & Water Show.jpg
Military aircraft perform over Lake Michigan
Genre Air show
Dates every August
Frequency Annually
Location(s) Chicago, Illinois
Country United States
Established 1959; 65 years ago (1959)
Organized by Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events

The Chicago Air & Water Show is an annual air show held on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago, Illinois. Chicago's second most popular festival, it has been held every year since 1959. In 2005 it was attended by 2,200,000 people. Presented by the City of Chicago, it is the largest free show of its kind in the United States.


The U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, diamond pilots fly over Chicago during the 2019 Chicago Air and Water Show. (48599021741)
The Blue Angels fly over the city in 2019

The air show is a free event showcasing daredevil pilots, parachute teams, and formation jet flyers, as well as water-skiing and boat-jumping demonstrations. With its proximity to city beaches and skyline, the show is visible from almost anywhere along the Chicago lakefront. Grandstand seats for the water show are at North Avenue Beach. WBBM AM (780) broadcasts both days of the event every year.

The show features both civilian and military pilots, and flight teams have been sponsored by companies including Oracle and Red Bull. Many of its performers use Chicago's third airport, the Gary/Chicago International Airport in nearby Gary, Indiana, for ground support. The U.S. Army Golden Knights have participated each year for the last several years, and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds alternate annually as headliners.


Chicago Air & Water Show from North Avenue Beach
Spectators of the Chicago Air & Water Show from North Avenue Beach.

The show was first held in 1959 as the Lakeshore Park Air & Water Show, on a budget of $88. It featured a Coast Guard Air Sea Rescue demonstration, water skiers, a water ballet, games and a diving competition. The following year, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and Golden Knights Parachute Team were added.

Since 1989, the introduction of corporate sponsorship by Mickey Markoff has underwritten the show's production costs. It has been managed by the Mayor's Office of Special Events since 1994.

In 2020 the show was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

50th Anniversary Show (2008)

In 2008, the 50th show was extended from two to three days. On Friday, typically an unofficial preview and rehearsal day, became a part of the scheduled performances. Actress Florence Henderson opened the airshow by singing the American national anthem. The show featured Chicago theater alumnus Bill Murray, who parachuted into the event with the Golden Knights to promote the United Service Organization; and Gary Sinise performed a live concert with his Lt. Dan Band. The concert concluded with a B-1 bomber fly-by and fireworks. Several freestyle jet skiers also competed. LXF Pro Tour champion Gary Burtka lead Team Twangled teammates Greg Brock, Mike Hoffman and Michael Niksic. The Mayor's Office of Special Events estimated that the show drew a record crowd of about 3.1 million.

Safety Precautions

Aircraft take off and land at Gary/Chicago International Airport in Gary, Indiana. All pilots perform stunts over the water in a set area known as a "safety box". This area extends from the lakefront shoreline out to a section on Lake Michigan where recreational boats and kayakers line up for an alternate vantage point.

Organizers work closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and city departments on safety procedures. Each day, before flying, all pilots and air personnel must attend morning meetings to receive weather and safety updates. Additionally, the event employs its own air traffic controller who oversees the downtown airspace during show hours.

In 2005, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds ended their demonstration halfway through their routine. During a diamond formation slow-roll pass, the tip of the missile rail on the right wing of the slot (#4) aircraft contacted the left stabilator of the right (#3) aircraft. A four-foot section of the missile rail snapped off, while the #3 aircraft sustained damage described by one of the Thunderbirds pilots as a "medium deep scratch" to the red paint of the stabilator. Amateur video later broadcast on local television news programs showed the missile rail falling into the safety box. No injuries were sustained, but the demonstration was immediately terminated and all aircraft returned to Gary International Airport. The Thunderbirds did not return for the second day's demonstration.

Regarding the audience, people are allowed to bring picnic blankets, chairs and coolers, and are not allowed to take grills, fireworks, alcohol, tents, balloons, weapons, kites, flagpoles, and pets (service animals are an exception) to the watching area.