Chicago Air and Water Show 2023: Lineup, schedule and Thunderbirds

Just a few generations ago, flying was a marvel to most Chicagoans. They caught “aviationitis” and loved to watch fantastical flying machines soar over the lakefront.

That love affair continued to 1959 when water skiers, games and a diving competition filled the lineup for the city’s first air and water show, which was a celebration for kids in the Chicago Park District’s day camp program. It was produced for just $88.

Almost 65 years later, organizers expect about 2 million people at lakefront beaches to watch aerobatic feats in the sky and simulated rescue operations in the water.

We’ve compiled a list of what to know about this year’s Chicago Air and Water Show: how to get to the lakefront (or avoid it), weather conditions, what to expect and more.

No! The event is free.

North Avenue Beach is show center, but good sightlines can be found at Ohio Street Beach and along the lakefront from Fullerton Avenue south to Oak Street Beach. Nearby parks and playing fields are generally less crowded.

10:30 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Rehearsal happens Friday.

The beaches open at 6 a.m., but there’s no public seating areas or parking available at North Avenue Beach.

The schedule is subject to change and determined on show days. The lineup includes:

  • U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds: The air demonstration team was founded 70 years ago — just six years after the Air Force became its own branch of service — and has performed here since 1960. More than 120 enlisted members prepare and service eight red, white and blue F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft. Six perform formation flying and solo routines during a typical demonstration.
  • U.S. Army Parachute Team Golden Knights: Appearing here since the 1960s — when they would land in Lake Michigan — this team of soldiers has jumped with former Cubs catcher and current manager David Ross, actor Vince Vaughn and comedian Bill Murray.
  • Other Air Force demonstrations: Viper Demonstration Team in F-16; Heritage flight with P-51 Mustang; C-17 Globemaster III; A-10 Thunderbolt II with Air National Guard; KC-135E Stratotanker with Air National Guard
  • U.S. Navy: F/A-18F Super Hornet “Rhino” Demonstration Team; Legacy flight with A-4B Skyhawk and FG-1D Corsair
  • U.S. Coast Guard: MH-65D Dolphin Search & Rescue
  • Civilians: Chicago Fire Department air and sea rescue unit; Chicago Police Department helicopter; Susan Dacy; Rob Holland; Bill Stein; Kevin Coleman; Edward Hamill and Triple Time Team.

  • Pedestrians: Bridges, tunnels or underpasses at Fullerton Avenue, Division Street, Scott Street, Chicago Avenue, North Avenue Beach and Oak Street Beach provide easy access to the lakefront and North Avenue Beach.
  • Public transportation: Extra service and capacity will be provided throughout the weekend. Use Regional Transportation Authority’s Trip Planner tool to map your route. It’s recommended passengers purchase tickets ahead of time or through the Ventra app to avoid long lines.
  • Chicago Transit Authority and getting there by ‘L’: The CTA will provide extra service on some lines, but the No. 72 North Avenue bus will be rerouted. Take the Red Line to stations at Chicago/State or Clark/Division, which are within walking distance of show center. Or, take the Blue, Green, Orange, Brown or Pink lines to the downtown area and walk east. The closest CTA station to the North Avenue Beach entrance is the Brown Line’s Sedgwick station.
  • Metra: Extra service will be provided on four of Metra’s 11 lines with expanded passenger capacity, too, during the weekend. Customers disembarking at Metra’s Union Station or Millennium Park Station can board CTA’s No. 151 buses to Oak Street and North Avenue beaches. Alcohol is prohibited and bicycles might not be accommodated all day Saturday and Sunday.
  • Bike: Bringing your own bike? Bikes are allowed on the beach. Renting one? Divvy’s closest station to North Avenue Beach is at DuSable Lake Shore Drive and North Boulevard. Valet service is available from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Additional valet service will be available each day of the show at Navy Pier (Grand Avenue and Streeter Drive) and Theater on the Lake (Fullerton Avenue and DuSable Lake Shore Drive). Plan you ride at
  • Parking: No parking is available at show central. Millennium Garages’s four, underground locations offer discounted online parking packages for purchase in advance and a free shuttle from Millennium Park Garage to and from near North Avenue Beach. Pick up and drop off is at the North Avenue northbound entrance to DuSable Lake Shore Drive. Spothero also offers nearby parking options.
Visitors to North Avenue Beach spread out their towels as they wait for the start of the Chicago Air and Water Show practice on Aug. 19, 2016.

All bags will be searched upon entry.

What you can bring to the show:

  • Binoculars
  • Bottled water
  • Chairs
  • Coolers
  • Earplugs
  • Blankets
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen

Leave at home:

  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Balloons and kites
  • Drones
  • Fireworks
  • Flag poles
  • Grills
  • Illegal substances
  • Pets (except service animals)
  • Tents and canopies
  • Weapons

The forecast calls for mostly sunny and clear skies but hot, humid conditions this weekend with highs in the low to upper 80s lakeside.

It happens. Foggy and wet conditions delayed performances in 2022.

In case of severe weather: Temporary shelter from rain, high winds, lightning or hail is available at various nearby underpasses (Diversey Harbor, Fullerton Avenue and LaSalle Drive) and pedway locations (Division Street, Scott Street, Oak Street and Chicago Avenue).

Spectators can pay $20 per vehicle for entrance to the parking lot at Gary/Chicago International Airport, where they can watch aircraft take off and land.

Herb Hunter is the show announcer based at North Avenue Beach. He’s a former military pilot and United Airlines captain.

Play-by-play coverage will be on WBBM-AM 780 and 105.9 FM.

For those who are low vision or blind, there will be an audio description both days of the show that is accessible via Zoom.

Vertical green signs with white letters and numbers called pole markers are attached to all light poles along the lakefront.

Lost? Injured? Witness criminal activity? Look up, call 911 and give the letter/number on the pole nearest your location to help first responders locate you. Or, use the pole marker to let friends and family know where you are.

Sources: Tribune reporting; Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events

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