The case for ending the Chicago Air & Water Show

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Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing but the might of America’s military-industrial complex—air shows feel like a relic of the past. (Doesn’t the Obama era call for an outdoor drone show?) But that won't stop more than 1.5 million people from crowding the lakefront this weekend to watch the Blue Angels ride the highway to the danger zone during the Chicago Air & Water Show.

Aside from some muttering about the chest-rattling sonic boom emitted by squadrons of jets taking practice runs, there has been very little criticism of the loud, proud event, now in its 57th year. Most media coverage previewing the show looks like the Tribune’s—something akin to a pamphlet the city's flacks might hand to attendees.


But back in 1996 the Reader's Cate Plys made the case that the city should abolish the Air & Water Show. The headline "PLANE STUPID" ran above a photo of the fiery wreckage of a 1988 plane crash amid a gallery of people at a U.S. air base in Ramstein, West Germany, that killed 70 people and seriously injured 450 more.

The lengthy feature chronicled the exorbitant expense and pollution related to air shows, but the bulk of the argument centered on safety concerns. There had been no major incidents at Chicago’s annual event but plenty of accidents elsewhere in the world, some fatal. “So why junk the air show, now entering its 39th year with nary a crash?” Plys wrote. “Because other air shows aren't so lucky—and there's no reason our luck couldn't run out too.”

Plys detailed the hundreds of people who had died in air show crashes from the previous 40 years, as well as the millions of taxpayer dollars wasted. Following the Rammstein accident, Chicago alderman Burton Natarus tried to end Chicago’s show. "I worry about one of those mechanical errors happening in which hundreds of pounds of flaming metal crashes into a high-rise apartment building," he said.

But that attempt fell on deaf ears, as did Plys’s story. In the 19 years since the story, the Chicago Air & Water Show has continued without major incident—and yet accidents have occurred at other similar events, including an aircraft that crashed into spectators during a Reno, Nevada, show air race, killing the pilot and ten others on the ground. Chicago's show has been accident-free since 1978, when a B2 bomber on a practice run stalled and crash-landed into a landfill in Glenview, killing all four crewmen. 

Perhaps it's worth reviving the call to ground the Chicago Air & Water Show—if not because of the hypothetical dangers it poses to those of us on the ground, then because it's a tradition of blatant military propaganda. Instead rewatch Top Gun, or better yet, check out this video of an eagle destroying a drone. 


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