REVIEW: Chicago Air & Water Show 2023


The Chicago Air And Water Show boasts a lineup of air show staples in a city more than capable of hosting enormous crowds. Visiting photographers may find it difficult to get that shot of a lifetime though. This is the second time I have attended the Chicago And Water Show and let me start by saying I love Chicago. The public transportation is fantastic and there is an energy within the city that I haven’t found anywhere else. What better place to have a weekend getaway with my wife and work at an airshow at the same time?

For this trip, we bought tickets to a viewing party at Theater On The Lake. I’ll split this review into two sections – one about the airshow itself, and the other about the Theater on the Lake viewing party (and some speculation on what my experience would have been like without viewing party tickets).

Part 1 – The Airshow 

We had no issues with traffic taking an Uber from downtown to the venue, just about 2 miles (3 km) away. Walking was also a viable option – which we did on the way back.

The airshow kicked off promptly at 10:30 with the Triple Time Team, consisting of Bill Stein, Kevin Coleman & Rob Holland. We would get to see each one of them again when they executed their solo routines later that day.

One of my favorite performances as a four-ship of A-10C Thunderbolt IIs from the Air National Guard, which approached show center in formation breaking off into two pairs. For what felt like 10 minutes, each pair executed mock strafing runs with show center as their target; pair one worked from the south while pair two worked from the north. I enjoyed getting to see the A-10s work down low and hear the unique whistle of the engines.

We soon received a few passes from the KC-135 Stratotanker.  The tanker executed mulitple  sweeping passes along the Lake Michigan Shore working from both the north and south of the city. This was followed by Susan Dacy and her Stearman, followed by a US Coast Guard MH-65F Dolphin SAR demonstration and a Chicago Fire Department Air/Sea Rescue demonstration

The airshow headliners were the US Navy’s F/A-18F Rhino Demo Team, USAF F-16C Viper Demo Team, US Army Golden Knights and the Thunderbirds – all amazing teams each bringing something unique to the table. Both the Viper Demo Team and Rhino demo team put on superb demonstrations but their distance from the crowd line left me wanting more.

The US Air Air Force Thunderbirds closed out the show. I haven’t seen the team perform since the demo was updated in 2021 but I enjoyed the new routine. Some of their passes were the closest to the crowd that I observed with at least one pass going directily overhead. In what I can only call the sneakiest of sneak passes and a rare moment of the show where the aircraft felt close, Thunderbird 5 caught me completely off guard as I was tracking the 4 ship pass exiting the box.

The planned C-17A Globemaster III and A-4B Skyhawk were absent from the Saturday show.

Chicago is a great city and their airshow has a great line up, but there is a catch: the show line feels distant from the crowd line. The vastness of Lake Michigan likely is adding to the effect. The good news is that at no point in time did I feel like hearing loss could have been an issue. This is a plus for folks with young kids. The bad news is that it never felt like I was a participant. The distance between the crowd and the performers made it feel like I was watching from “outside the fence”.

I knew the show line/crowd line distance wasn’t as favorable for my liking based on my last visit so I approached this show a little differently. Firstly, I planned this trip as a weekend getaway with my wife. While the Air Show was the highlight of my trip, we packed in quite a few other activities while we were in the city. Secondly, I packed light; my full outfitted backpack that I would take to an airshow weighs 35lbs+ and is pretty unpleasant to carry around long distances. I kept it simple this time; one Camera Body and a 70-200mm f2.8 lens. Finally, I bought tickets at the Theater on the lake viewing party. Let’s talk about that…

Part 2 – the viewing party

As part of the weekend getaway theme, I needed to step it up from my usual air show regimen of minimum water and snacks; essentially packing just enough to get through the day. Theater at the Lake offered table seating, unlimited food and drink, shade, and access to portable restrooms for $100usd per person. The food was great and I may have enjoyed a beverage or two. Once I was able to disconnect from my usual airshow mentality, which I did relatively early in the show, I had a great time.

Some things to know about the venue: seating is first come, first served, so scope out where you want to sit while in line to get in. Have a backup spot in mind. Bear in mind that the food line took about 25 minutes to get through. While the food was excellent, timing is a consideration so you don’t miss your favorite act. And finally, note that portable canopies for vendors were popped up every 100 feet or so. When photographing the show, I worked around them the best I could while still being social at our table. For photographers, it’s not terrible, but not great either. After the show, the vendors immediately broke down their canopies, and the view vastly improved; if I had one piece of feedback for the venue, it would be to move the canopies somewhere else so the guests had an unobstructed view of the skyline.

While my wife waited in the check-in line before the venue opened, I took a few minutes to walk around the fence that secured the seating to observe what the free-to-access public areas looked like. At 10:45 AM and throughout the day, it appeared there were several great, free seating opportunities. I was unable to observe if there were lines at any of the public portable restrooms but I do know they were available. Recognizing that I paid for a premium experience, if I were traveling alone, I would leverage some of the 2.5 miles of available viewing shoreline and save the cost of a ticket. If looking for a premium experience, I’d buy the ticket again in a heartbeat.

I will certainly attend the Chicago Air And Water Show again but depending on who I’m with, I may approach it differently next time. I mentioned earlier that there are 2.5+ miles of accessible shoreline. Working that shoreline might yield some more unique angles. Several boat operators offer cruises during the show. Photographing from the lake would place the city in the foreground. With a little bit of research, I think I could improve my sight lines. But then again, I had a great time just taking in the show enjoying food and drink with great company, and would happily move photography down the priority list to do the same again.