Presented by Shell and the City of Chicago, the Air and Water Show celebrates 60 years of daredevil thrills in the air and on the water at North Avenue Beach and along Chicago’s magnificent lakefront on Lake Michigan. With Chicago's Skyline as a backdrop, audience numbers reach 2 million annually making the Chicago Air & Water Show the largest FREE admission air and water exhibition of its kind in the United States. Over the years the show has featured some of the top civilian and military pilots and aircraft. Biennially, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds headline along with the U.S. Army Parachute Team Golden Knights and the U.S. Navy Leap Frogs.
The Chicago Air & Water Show is conducted in an extremely safe and conscientious way. Safety precautions are taken at all times before, during and after the show. Planes take off and land at the Gary/Chicago International Airport in Gary, Indiana. All pilots perform stunts over the water in a set safety area. When a plane does fly over buildings, it is merely doing so in its flight path to return to the show area or the airport.
Organizers work closely with the FAA and various City Departments in a highly proactive manner to assure the safety of all involved. All pilots and air personnel must attend morning meetings each day before flying to receive up-to-date information about weather and pertinent details to assure safe flights. Additionally, the event employs its own air traffic controller who oversees the downtown air space during show hours.
In 1959 the first show was held under the direction of Al Benedict, a Chicago Park District Supervisor at Lakeshore Park. Held at Chicago Avenue and Lake Michigan, the show was titled the Lakeshore Park Air & Water Show, and was a part of a “Family Day” celebration for children enrolled in the Chicago Park District’s day camp program. The budget was $88, and the show 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 performed to a huge crowd and the event became a Chicago summer tradition.
Eventually, the show was renamed the Chicago Park District Air & Water Show, expanded to two days, and moved to its current location at North Avenue Beach. Corporate sponsorship participation was incorporated in 1989, and now provides substantial support for the production costs of the show. The event has been managed by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events since 1994.