August 17, 2016

Chicago Air and Water Show Viewing Guide

Each year about this time I start to receive many requests from friends and family and through for tips on where to watch the Chicago Air & Water Show. I thought I would share some of my suggestions for the best places to watch the Chicago Air & Water Show. I have my thoughts on many of the popular viewing spots on the map to the right.

Each year airshow fans migrate to the lakeshore to see a variety of civilian and military acts the headline act of the 2016 Chicago Air & Water Show will be the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

We always suggest if you are looking for a way to take in the show without being shoulder to shoulder with a million fellow Chicagoans, then check out the practice day on Friday. The teams will perform their entire show during their Friday dry run.

Here are our suggestions for the best ways to take in the Chicago Air & Water Show:

Unobstructed Views
The best way to view the show is from a place where you will have an unobstructed view of the entire show. The only real way to do that is from a boat on Lake Michigan. If you are one of the lucky few that own a boat or know a friend that does that is surely one of the best ways to get a clear view of the action. If you don't own and can't mooch a ride you can always pay to take a cruise. Check out this comparison of Chicago Air & Water Show cruises.

Airshow Center
The Airshow center is North Avenue Beach. This is where the Harrier usually shows off the V/STOL maneuvers. Additionally, the flight teams will use this as the center point of their show. If they have a loop or a crossing pattern this is where it will take place. As a result, this is a very popular place to watch the show so expect there to be large crowds and you will need to arrive early to get a spot on the beach. If you want to enjoy the excitement of viewing the show from show center but want to ensure you have a place to sit check out the special offers from Castaways.

Altitude, Altitude, Altitude
We are talking about an airshow (well, also a water show but who are we fooling?) so altitude makes a difference. A rooftop deck or balcony located near the center of the show action and above neighboring buildings provides a great way to watch the show. The challenge here is that typically you need to share that space with a lot of other interested parties.

Although I have never tried it, I have heard some suggest visiting the John Hancock Chicago's Observatory. I can imagine those spots will be crowded too but must provide an interesting view of the show. I highly recommend the Hancock over the Willis tower this year with the exclusion of many of the jet teams which needed more airspace to maneuver and often circled past the Willis tower.

A Blanket On the Lakefront
Most people view the show from a blanket on a beach or a spot along the lakefront. I used to suggest heading north to Diversey or Montrose Harbor where you could have had a great view while also avoiding much of the crowd. This year I recommend getting as close to show center as possible.

What are the boundaries of the airshow? That is tough to say as many of the planes fly up from Gary International Airport so you will spot planes well south of the Show. My personal recommendation is to find a spot to watch the show that is no further south than Northerly Island and no further north than Montrose Harbor (displayed in the map to the right). I would try to be as far east as you can get (those in boats will win in this category) with the westernmost point being Halsted. You can, of course, see and enjoy the action from outside this area but you will be seeing the fringe portion of the show and not taking in its full excitement.

Gary International Airport
Most of theperformance teams are based out of Gary International Airport for the Chicago Air & Water Show. For those in Indiana and well south of the city this has become a popular place to see the planes. Although you won't see a true airshow performance you will see the planes leaving and arriving, and flying in formation.

Listening to the Air & Water Show
Chicago's WBBM 780 has live coverage of the Air & Water Show. If you are not a die-hard aviation enthusiast or have a certified plane spotter with you I always suggest bringing along a radio so you can hear from the broadcast team what it is you are looking at flying by. If you are at show center there are speakers from which you can listen to Airshow MC Herb Hunter but that can often be a challenge over the roar of the planes so a personal radio is highly recommended.

Practice Day
The flight teams have their media day on Thursday and a few may come as far North as Chicago briefly. However on Friday there is nearly a full practice show. Most of the teams will run through their full performance and only a few single plane acts are missing on Friday. The practice usually runs between 10am and 3pm and is a great way to see the show without the crowds.

If you have a favorite place to view the Air & Water Show and are not afraid to share it and I will add the best suggestions to the guide. For more information check out our Chicago Air & Water Show Ultimate Guide.

Posted by at August 17, 2016 6:24 AM

Todd, thanks for putting together your tips for the Air & Water show! How early is early when you suggest arriving early?

Posted by: rachelle at August 12, 2009 11:48 AM | Reply

Generally it starts to get pretty full at North Avenue beach 1.5-2 hours before the show begins.

A few people I have spoken to this week have said that for the past few years Oak Street Beach has not been too crowded so that could be a good option as well.

Posted by: Todd McClamroch at August 12, 2009 2:36 PM | Reply

Thank you SO much for the info. I have a two year old who has become obsessed with planes and helicopters. I think Friday sounds perfect for us!!!

Posted by: Sara at July 27, 2010 4:02 PM | Reply

Thanks for such extensive info about the air and water show. I mean no disrespect at all, but this is the weekend that I most hate living in Chicago. Living five blocks from the lake, I feel like I'm under military siege for the weekend and cannot stand the noise. Your detailed schedule info has helped me plan when to flee the city. While the air and water show is my personal version of hell, I do realize to each their own, and hope that fans of the show have great weather and a fun weekend watching it all.

Posted by: Sandy at August 3, 2010 3:17 PM | Reply

Ground zero at North Avenue Beach. There is no place else to go. I've been going there for decades. I don't want to hear about the crowds because it's not like you can't find a place to sit and stretch out.

Everyone else can have their Christmases, Hannukahs, Mom's day, Pop's day, or Fourth of July. My holiday weekend every year is the Air Show. My friends know they can always find me in the same place, 100 yards north of the boathouse, and 100 feet in on the sand from the sidewalk. AIRSHOW!!!

Posted by: Matthew Shelley at August 13, 2010 11:26 AM | Reply

I mean no disrespect at all, but this is the weekend that I most hate living in Chicago. Living five blocks from the lake, I feel like I'm under military siege for the weekend and cannot stand the noise. Your detailed schedule info has helped me plan when to flee the city.

Posted by: Lila Berry at July 17, 2011 4:04 AM | Reply

Do you know is there a way to listen to the music that the Thunderbirds play along with their music or is is played under the announcer on wbbm?

Posted by: Campbell at August 18, 2011 8:50 AM | Reply

Sorry about the last comment. Didn't make sense.

Do you know is there a way to listen to the music that the Thunderbirds play while they are doing there show or is is played under the announcer on wbbm?

Posted by: Campbell at August 18, 2011 8:52 AM | Reply

They may play music at show center while the Thunderbirds fly, but the pilots do not listen to music in their helmets as all the movements that they make are by voice commands

Posted by: Pete at August 18, 2011 2:43 PM | Reply

Hi... Looking for the best hotel with roof top to see Chicago air show. Thanks

Posted by: Justine lyons at May 7, 2014 7:02 PM | Reply

Will the Blue Angels perform at the Friday preview? At what time do most of the military jets perform? Was thinking of taking my wife out for a preview day cruise.

Posted by: Tom at August 8, 2014 1:15 PM | Reply

They will do some flying on Thursday and then do their standard performance on Friday. Expect them around 2pm.

The preview day is always a great way to enjoy the show without the crowd.

Posted by: Todd McClamroch replied to comment from Tom at August 11, 2014 5:58 PM | Reply

What time does the air portion of the show start on Saturday, August 16 in Chicago?

Posted by: SB at August 13, 2014 3:49 PM | Reply

The show will begin at 10am. I have not seen the final schedule but expect it will begin with a skydive by the Golden Knights and Leap Frogs at 10am to bring in the American Flag to kick off the show. Usually, they have the Firebirds or Team Aeroshell flying at the same time.

Posted by: Todd McClamroch replied to comment from SB at August 13, 2014 3:54 PM | Reply


Posted by: to at August 19, 2016 3:35 AM | Reply

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