As a lifelong Chicago-area resident, I’ve had the pleasure of attending the Chicago Air & Water Show several times. I’ve viewed it from beaches on Chicago’s lakefront and, once, from atop a downtown building. Last year, I took in a different viewpoint from the parking lot of Gary Regional Airport in Gary, Ind. Due to its proximity to Lake Michigan, this is the staging airport for most of the aircraft performing in the air show. The parking lot is a great vantage point, and I watched aircraft take off, head for the Chicago flight line and return after their routines. Looking through the fence, I saw a handful of private aircraft sharing ramp space with the military jets. Right there, I made a decision to fly in, park on that side of the fence and hang out with those guys next year. And that’s precisely what I did.
Gary Airport is 7 nm from my home field, Lansing Municipal Airport, just inside the Illinois border. I’ve been a pilot for nearly 20 years, and I’ve landed at Gary many times, but on this occasion, I did more preflight planning than I’d do on some cross-country flights. My planning started a couple of days before the show with a phone call to Gary and a chat with the guys in the tower. They informed me that they were open during the air show, but performing aircraft had priority. Initially, I had intended to fly into Gary before the start of the show, but now I decided to arrive while the show was active. The folks in the tower made it sound easy enough, so I went ahead and rented a Cessna 152.
A seven-mile direct flight from Lansing to Gary is a challenge. There’s simply not enough time to climb out of Lansing (an uncontrolled field), tune into Gary’s ATIS and contact the tower before entering Gary’s Class D airspace. Once airborne, I found myself loitering about five miles south of Gary for a chance to hear the ATIS and observe any traffic. Sure enough, I noticed a C-130 lumbering down a long final approach to runway 30. I keyed the mic: “Gary tower, Cessna 6101Q, five south at two thousand, five hundred, inbound for landing with November.”
“Cessna 01Q, Gary tower, report downwind for runway 20,” was the response. Yes, I was in! There was no looking back.
This flight was a big deal because I’d be in a flight environment that’s unusual for me. There was a nearby TFR, an active air show and a large amount of jet activity. As I reported my downwind while overflying the field, I saw nearly 20 military jets parked on the ramp. I was cleared to land for runway 20, and as I turned my base leg, I noticed a contingent of cars parked down the airport road—their drivers taking in the air show and waving at me as I flew over on final. “They’re waving at me—in a Cessna 152,” I thought to myself. I felt like I was part of the air show! With all of this precision flying going on around me, I managed to hold my own and grease one while straddling the fat centerline of runway 20 (not exactly hard to do in a 152). I was instructed to taxi to the transient parking area on the west side of the field.
As I shut down, one of the ramp guys swung over to ask if I’d like a lift over to the Jet Center, where there was a great view of the flight line. On the way, we pulled an APU for a MiG into the hangar, and performed some other chores—I literally felt like part of the crew. At the Jet Center, I joined a handful of VIPs, and I felt a bit like Forrest Gump, having just stumbled into the best seat in the house. I must have looked a little silly trying to high-five myself.
The Blue Angels were parked on the far east end of the ramp—their F/A-18 Hornets lined up in a perfect row. As their time slot approached, the pilots marched out in a perfectly choreographed routine. They climbed the ladders to their cockpits and donned their helmets in unison. They taxied out in sequence and took off one at a time. The first two jets climbed straight out, and the next two rolled into an immediate knife-edge bank. (Gee, I had been taught to climb out straight and level.) The last two took off, and in an instant, they were all out of sight. When those guys move out with that kind of horsepower, it really does send shivers down your spine.
At the end of the show, I hopped a lift back to the Cessna and took my time preflighting, savoring the afternoon’s events. I shot about five landings back at Lansing before tying the 152 down for the evening. I digested what had transpired—lots of action made totally manageable by virtue of some careful preflight planning. Traffic density had been light, and throwing myself into the mix hadn’t been a problem. As I walked toward my car, one of the Blue Angels flew overhead, headed southwest, perhaps toward the next stop on the air show schedule. Then I saw another, same track, just a couple of minutes behind. Then another. Eventually, they all flew past, as if to say, “Mike, see you later!”