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History of Air and Water Show

There’s a lot of entertainment value in air and water shows and these events should definitely be in your plans to attend. Special occasions like these have been born to satisfy the thrill and entertainment we desire, and considering the long history behind them only makes them even more intriguing. These shows have become the main attraction in a number of county fairs, festivals, anniversaries and more, or they can be enjoyed as their own solo events.

Some cities in the US have their own annual air and water shows like, Chicago. While there are other instances where separate air and water shows are held, schedules are all dependent on the availability of the locations they are in.



Chicago Air and Water Show


You might have experienced these shows while growing up, with friends, family or strangers alike. It’s an annual event where many people gather in order to witness something incredible so it’s no surprise to see families celebrating the occasion. The history behind events like these are fascinating. They didn’t just pop up out of the blue!


Have you ever wondered how and why these kinds of entertaining events became as big and celebrated as they are today? Maybe you haven’t been curious enough to ask this question, but knowing why will still be fun to learn!


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Taking A Closer Look At Air Shows And How They Started

 Air shows are where stunt pilots get the chance to show their skills by taking aircraft into the sky and flying at insane speeds with or without props. What makes air shows different from regular aircraft flight is that they are flying for entertainment in front of millions of people who have gathered for the occasion.



The Thunderbirds performing at the Wings over Pittsburgh Air Show, photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Couillard


This air phenomenon isn’t just something that entertained crowds of the 20th century, there were actually air shows as far back as 1910. Owing to the International Air Meet of 1909 that happened in Reims, France, aerial interest in the US started budding.

In 1910 one of the first major air shows in the US happened and it marked the future of American aviation. Because of the rising interest in American air shows, it created this sense of “Air Awareness” for spectators.

Being aware of the air meant that people who have watched the show suddenly became conscious of the potential of aerial activities. The entertainment value of aircraft soared as more and more people felt motivated to watch the stunts. This also inspired the pilots themselves to pursue the exhibition era of US aviation.


Reminiscing The First Major Air Show In The US

The Dominguez Air Meet, happened at the Dominguez Field, south of Los Angeles. From the 10th to the 20th of January in 1910, the first major air show in the US was born. Some of the notable participants included Glenn Curtiss, Charles Hamilton, Lincoln Beachey, and Louis Paulhan. Each and every one of these participants would, later on, have their own achievements in the military and aviation field. Around a quarter and a half million people turned up for the event making it a huge success, earning its moniker as “one of the greatest public events in the history of the West”.



1910, Glenn Curtis Biplane with passenger Jerome Fancuilli at the Dominguez Air Show


Everywhere you looked, there was publicity for the event! Suddenly grandstands were erected and there was even an expanded passenger platform that was constructed. The platform was located at the Pacific Electric intercity rail transit station that was nearby the air meet just to be able to accommodate the possible audience to come.


It was a phenomenal success being the first of its kind in the country. The event would then go on to open for the following years of 1911 and 1912. The air show was set at the same location and with the same public access, making it one of the most anticipated events of those years.


Growing Interest of The Public And More Spectators


Entertainment is the main reason why people flocked to air shows. Aviators and their fancy stunts were something new for the American crowd, and people who started appreciating the aircraft speeds and pilot talents created a following not necessarily expected.



The 2011 Marine Corps Air Station Miramar Air Show with the Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron, photo by the United States Marine Corps ID 111001-M-7753V-997

There is also a sense of patriotism and of course, national pride that surrounds spectators of these types of events. It’s an exhilarating experience to get a chance to cheer for your own country’s pilots and also to experience seeing their skills from your very own eyes.


Death-defying stunts are a crowd pleaser and had also helped draw in popularity for the aviation phenomenon. Some attendees have also watched air shows for a chance to experience affordable joy rides at the event. By the 1920s, the joy rides actually soared to so much popularity, that about 980 passengers were able to fly in just a single day!


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Modern Air Shows And People Behind Them

Much like the forerunners, modern air shows are not as different when it comes to their content. One thing that’s for sure is that aircraft has gotten faster and the stunts have gotten more death-defying. The basic stunts are still there but, spectators can expect more risky programs that showcase the skills of the pilots.



F-16 Fighting Falcons from the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration, photo by Senior Airman DeAndre Curtiss


Modern air shows are primarily supported and promoted by the military. The U.S. Navy's Blue Angels and U.S. Air Force's Thunderbirds are two of the most well-known military air show groups of today and they have entertained people worldwide amounting to having at least 15 million watchers in a year.


How Chicago’s Air And Water Show Came To Be

One of the most prominent and ongoing air and water show combos in the US is the Chicago Air and Water Show. 2019 will be the 61st year of their annual air and water show which means that it’s an event that has been celebrated as far back as the year 1959 and with a starting budget of just $88.



Thunderbirds- Air-Force-Demonstration-Squadron-Delta-Loop

The Chicago “Loop”


It was first called the Lakeshore Park Air & Water Show and was held at Chicago Avenue and Lake Michigan. The show was directed by Chicago Park District Supervisor Al Benedict.

Everything began as part of the family day celebration for the kids who were enrolled in the day camp program of Chicago Park. The event also featured water skiers, a diving competition, water ballet, games, and the Coast Guard Air Sea Rescue demonstration.

The Golden Knights Parachute Team together with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds as they graced the event and performed in front of spectators in 1960. It was also done in part as Chicago’s summer tradition. Later on, the event was renamed as the Chicago Park District Air and Water Show; it was split into two days and relocated to North Avenue Beach.

The air and water show has been carefully managed by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events since 1994. The event has also received corporate sponsorship which helps support the production costs that the show incurs.



Spectators watching the USAF Drill Team, photo by Senior Airman Ryan J. Sonnier


The said event was then extended from a two-day occasion to three-days, to this day, it is still being celebrated yearly in Chicago. Spectators can expect skyline daredevil thrills as well as routines done on the water. The Chicago Air and Water show has successfully become the longest and the largest air and water show with free admission in the US.


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The 2019 Chicago Air and Water Show Record-breaking Number Of Spectators


Special performances that drew in a crowd record of about 3.1 million viewers to the Chicago Air and Water Show included those that featured Bill Murray with the Golden Knights. This was to promote the United Service Organization and was part of the scheduled performances in 2008.

For the 2019 Chicago Air and Water Show, there are a series of performers that spectators can look forward to. Attendees will get a taste of watching skilled and professional teams and aircraft pilots on full aerial display.

There’s the Military Teams namely, the Royal Air Force Red Arrows, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, the U.S. Army Parachute Team Golden Knights, the U.S. Navy Parachute Team Leap Frogs, U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor Demo, USMC Osprey Demo, USAF A-10 Thunderbolt II, KC-135 Stratotanker, C-130 Hercules, T-38 Talon, U.S. Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin Helicopter, and the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter.



A crowd watching from Lake Michigan on the 58th Annual Chicago Air and Water Show


Civilian teams will also be present for the show such as the American Airlines, the Bill Stein Aerosport, Chicago Fire Department Air/Sea Rescue, Chicago Police Department Helicopter, Sean D. Tucker & Team Oracle, Susan Dacy in the Super Stearman Model 70, The Firebirds Delta Team, Matt Chapman Air Shows, and the Warbird Heritage Museum Foundation P-51 Mustang.


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Does The City Of Chicago Spend Too Much On Its Air And Water Shows?

Upon learning that the initial cost of the Chicago Air and Water show was just $88, you’d wonder how much it costs to fund a show that has grown as massively as it has. According to a spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Mary May, the 2017 show costs around $742,189.




U.S. Air Force Honor Guard Drill Team member, Staff Sgt. Alexander Wilson, photo by Senior Airman Ryan J. Sonnier


The show includes all 20 acts as well as equipment, security, lodging, and clean up of the entire event. The cost didn’t just cover the military aircraft but the civilian planes as well, not to mention the rescue boats from the Chicago Fire Department.


Around 72% of the bill is shouldered by the sponsors ($532,100), while the remaining $210,089 were from taxpayers. This didn't mean that the air and water show had it easy every year, there are also times that they had such a large loss that the annual event almost got canceled. Instead of canceling, someone else found funding and the event was then saved.


With the help of the hospitality of the Chicago community as well as corporate sponsors, the show was able to breakeven. Even if sponsors and prominent branding was what has kept the show afloat over the years, it’s also the heart and the helping hand of the community which makes the show itself thrive to what it is now.


As of now, the show still works with the sponsorship of companies like Boeing, Shell Oil Products, the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, American Airlines, and Bud Light. It is safe to say that there is still a bright future when it comes to the future of the Chicago Air and Water show.


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Is There A Cost To The Federal Government For The Air And Water Show?

Not known to many, federal tax dollars are also used mainly to train and to give salaries to military performers. They are also the ones providing equipment for the teams that do the air and water shows.


Many of the performers who join air and water shows not only in Chicago but in the entire country have budgets that are coming from the US Department of Defense divisions for recruiting and community outreach.




New recruits for the 51st Chicago Air and Water Show


There’s no exact cost of how much the maintenance of the military teams are paid. They’re usually dependent on the budget of each of the teams themselves and it also highly depends on the number of shows these teams would go to each year.


From the record of the three biggest Chicago military performers, they will have 30 shows annually and it would add up to $780,000 roughly. Of course, this isn’t the same for every team, but you get the idea and now you have basic knowledge on how much money goes into making the teams geared up and prepared enough for the shows that they do in each city.


Should You Go Watch An Air And Water Show?

If you haven't already, then you should. It’s an experience that you can never forget. Many of these shows are free to the public to watch so there's really nothing to lose. Just check the event calendar and plan on spending some time on the field to witness skilled pilots do their stunts in air.



Crowd looking out for the Air and Water Show


Not only are these types of shows very entertaining but you can also earn a lot from them. You can witness how the rescue department operates and they also show what most rescue missions have to go through. 


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Grechelle Magbanua

Professional Content Writer

Social Scene







Topics: Air & Water Show Content