The Annual Chicago Air & Water Show

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If you’re hanging around Chicago in the third weekend of August, don’t be surprised if the city suddenly seems to be under siege. It’s not. Those fighter jets ripping through downtown are just part of the annual Air & Water Show, which displays the most thrilling components of the United States Air Force, Army and Navy.

In its 53nd year, the exhibition is the largest of its kind in the country and draws millions of people from all over for its spectacular sights and roaring noises. It’s no surprise that the Air & Water show was always my most lucrative lemonade stand weekend as a kid.

The show is all based from North Avenue Beach, which is the prime spot for viewing both the air and water aspects of the event. But, if you want advice from a seasoned Air & Water Show expert, Oak Street Beach is where it’s at. The aerial part of the exhibition is truly what draws the crowds, and you can see it just as well from Oak Street Beach. You’ll have a little more elbow room, which is definitely appreciated in the August heat. Fullerton Beach has great views, too, but less space.

The show starts in the morning with the water stunts display, which you can only see if you’re at North Avenue beach — but take my word for it when I say it’s not that exciting. A bunch of guys ride around on jet skis and do a few tricks… not worth the crowds in my opinion. Then comes the cool stuff: guys jumping out of planes, free falling jets, jumbo jets, fighter jets, jets jets and more jets! It’s a little boy’s dream come true… but pretty awesome for the rest of us, too.

The U.S. Army Parachute Team, The Golden Knights, does a pretty cool routine, jumping out of a jet 12,500 feet above North Avenue Beach and performing precision stunts all the way down. Other acts to look out for include the Firebirds, the Aeroshell Aerobatic Team, and the U.S. Navy Leap Frogs. You never really know what to expect — one year Bill Murray kicked off the show by jumping out of a plane!

The grand finale is the best part — either the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds or the U.S. Navy Blue Angels swoop in to close the show. (They switch off every-other year. This year (2011) the Thunderbirds will be headlining.) They perform a rip-roaring routine, including the famed delta formation and a tribute to the fallen soldier, in which one jet ceremoniously falls from the pack; so keep an eye out for that move and give a nod to our troops.

The whole extravaganza is, in a way, the last hurrah of Chicago summer. As August winds down, the Air & Water show gives everyone one last excuse to grab the kids, the cooler and some SPF and head to the lakefront for some good old fashioned summer fun. Bring earplugs for the really little ones, as the jet engines aren’t for the faint of heart. Another fun tip: don’t forget a portable radio — you can listen to the show broadcast on WBBM AM Radio, so you know what’s flying past you at any given moment.

In 2011 the Chicago Air & Water Show will take place on August 20th & 21st, and runs from 11am to 4pm. Little known fact, though: the show is run through in its entirety during rehearsal the Friday before, so if you don’t care about the official broadcast and prefer to skip the crowds, head to the beach on the 19th!

For those looking for a little more personal experience, reserve a table at the lakefront restaurant, Oak Street Beachstro. The restaurant offers all-day packages for both Saturday and Sunday, which, albeit pricey, is a great way to avoid the crowds and really enjoy the show. Castaways at North Avenue Beach also offers limited reserved tickets.

If you’re coming from afar, be forewarned: parking is TOUGH this weekend. Get there early, and expect to walk a bit from wherever you find a spot. Garage parking is also available at the Millennium Park and East Monroe Garages. Garage parkers can take a free shuttle to and from North Avenue Beach. Visit for more info. As always, we highly recommend taking public transportation on busy weekends like this one! It might be a day to skip the bike, though… the lakefront paths get so crowded you’ll end up walking your bike most of the time.

Have fun!

Jackie Berkery

About Jackie Berkery

With a strong phobia of cubicles and those three little words (“nine to five”), I am thrilled to be working on UPchicago from the comforts of my own couch at three o’clock in the morning. I love to write. I love Chicago. Hello, dream job!

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