Highlights of the 2003 Chicago Air and Water Show

This year's air show was kicked off with a flypast of F-15 Eagles, America's current top of the line fighter.   The F-15 was the replacement for the F-4 Phantom, which was used extensively during the Vietnam war.  It's rare to see so many of these aircraft together.

three F15 Eagles in formation

Here's another rarity - four A-10 Thunderbolts in formation.   The "warthog" as it's colloquially known is designed around the 22 foot (7 meter) long Avenger cannon, a seven barrel gatling gun which is used to destroy enemy armor such as tanks.   Each 30mm shell fired by the cannon is made of depleted uranium, measures a foot (30 centimeters) long and weighs one and a half pounds (about 700 grams).   Properly placed, a single shell can destroy a tank, but the Thunderbolt can fire a remarkable 70 rounds a second, which is enough to slow the plane down significantly from the recoil of the cannon.   The Air Force never really liked the Thunderbolt because it's too slow, too ugly, too low tech and its only purpose is ground attack, which is usually seen as the role of the army.   However the Thunderbolt was so effective and irreplaceable that there was no way to retire it from service.

four A10 Thunderbolts in formation

Look closely and you'll see a man and a woman in their apartment, no doubt wondering what the hell that thing is right outside their window!   As it happens, it's a B-1 Lancer bomber, a pair of which usually appears very early in the proceedings.   This year they didn't  fly in close formation as they have done in previous years, but there was a bonus appearance late on both days by a single Lancer, who flew past downtown and then did a single high-speed pass.

B-1 Lancer bomber approaching apartment building

The B-1 is a regular at the Chicago, but this B-52 Stratofortress bomber isn't - in fact, this is the first one I've seen flying at any airshow in America, though they do show up fairly often on static display, and I have seen a B-52 flying at the Royal International Air Tattoo in England.   At the Chicago show the pilot thoughtfully banked the aircraft to provide a better view, rather than just flying straight past as most pilots do.

B52 Stratofortress

Here's another Chicago regular which is a real rarity at other shows, a KC-135 Stratotanker, which performs air-to-air refuelling of military aircraft.   It's a heavily modified Boeing 707 airliner which uses an extendable boom to pass fuel at a rate of 1,000 gallons (3,800 liters) a minute.   The Air Force has always preferred the boom to the "probe and drogue" technique used by the US Marines and by foreign air forces, and one advantage of the boom is that it's possible for a crippled aircraft to physically hook up to the tanker and be towed for some distance to a friendly airfield, which it can then glide down to.

In 1966 a Stratotanker and a B-52 Stratofortress collided, resulting in the loss of both aircraft and the scattering of four hydrogen bombs being carried by the B-52.   Three of the bombs dropped over a rural part of Spain, and the fourth fell into deep water off the coast.   This sparked one of those typical Cold War contests between the United States and the Soviet Union, as each raced to retrieve it.   This episode appears in the silly movie Men of Honor, which claims to be true but is about as fictitious as movies come - Cuba Gooding as the hero is shown diving 2,500 feet under the surface (which probably makes him dead) when his air line is snagged by a Soviet submarine (which certainly makes him dead) and when he breaks free he sees the bomb right in front of him (which is impossible, since there's no light down that deep).   Back in Realityland the fourth bomb was recovered two and a half months after the accident by the robot submarine ALVIN, but only after being dropped while it was being lifted, with the result that it fell into even deeper water and was lost for another two weeks - all in the name of making the world a safer, better place.   Disappointingly, the city fathers of Chicago are too conservative to allow the KC-135 to do an actual refuelling display, perhaps because they think that the televised sight of burning wreckage falling on the crowd would be given a negative slant by the news media.

KC135 aerial refuelling tanker and F16 Fighting Falcon  (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Yet another reason why the military jet enthusiast should consider Chicago a prime American airshow venue - a C-5 Galaxy, once again a regular attendee here which I've never seen flying at any other airshow.   I do have a photo of one taking off in the New Zealand city of Christchurch, where the US navy has a base they use to fly down to Antarctica.   That particular Galaxy was on display at an open day, so it had its massive nose door open and people were allowed to walk through it and see the large mobile crane it had just brought up from the ice, as well as the long ladder which leads up from the cargo deck to the cockpit!   The undercarriage of the Galaxy with its bogies of wheels is pretty amazing and the sight of this huge aircraft doing slow circles above Lake Michigan supported by its loud whining engines was certainly impressive.   It's even more impressive to realize that the Russian Antonov An-240 cargo plane has six jet engines and twice the cargo lifting capacity of the Galaxy.

C5 Galaxy

The Chicago airshow is very strong in the area of modern military jets, but very weak in the traditional staple of airshows - world war two aircraft.   Each year, however, there's a solitary P-51D Mustang, in this case paired with an A-10 in what the Air Force calls an "Heritage Flight".   After the paired flight, the P-51 did 6 or 7 more passes and maneuvers over the water, but most of the audience didn't seem too excited.

A10 Thunderbolt II and P51 Mustang Heritage Flight

What they wanted to see and hear was speed and noise!

This F-14 Tomcat was just the ticket, doing a high-speed pass which resulted in a couple of brief bursts of water vapor, lasting small fractions of a second, as the plane flew through very localized areas of especially high humidity.   The partial vacuum left behind as the plane zooms past is enough to cause the water vapor to condense into droplets, even if it is just for a moment.

F14 Tomcat with burst of water vapor
F14 Tomcat climbing steeply with afterburner

The Tomcat is due to be retired in just a few years, replaced by the F-18 Hornet.   The F-14 itself was developed because the navy didn't like the size and weight of the F-111 Aardvark, which was a typical politicians' aircraft intended to meet the needs of both the air force and the navy, just as the current F-35 joint strike fighter is supposed to be a "one size fits all" solution, which as well as all its other duties is also supposed to take off and land vertically to satisfy the marines' desire for an aircraft like their current AV-8B Harrier.

Like almost all such compromise aircraft, the F-111 wasn't really successful, serving adequately with the air force, but deemed totally unsuitable by the navy.   Instead the navy asked Grumman to develop the F-14, which has the same moveable "swing wings" as the F-111, allowing slow speed maneuverability when swept forward, as you see it here, and high speed when swept backwards, as in the previous photo.   Unlike the F-111, which is a fighter-bomber, the F-14 is a pure fighter, and still very capable in that role.

Here's the F-14's replacement, the F-18 Hornet.   It's a smaller, simpler aircraft than the Tomcat, which makes it easier and cheaper to maintain and run, but unlike the Tomcat the F-18 can also carry up to 13,700 pounds (6.2 tonnes) of bombs, which makes it much more versatile.   The navy's also getting F-18 Super Hornets (distinguished by a small "dog's tooth" in the leading edge of each wing) which are a slightly scaled up version which provide 40% greater range and more load carrying capacity.

The single-seat F-18C shown in this photo is in the so-called "dirty configuration" with undercarriage and tailhook extended.   It's flying about as slowly as it can, but you can see from the amount of water vapor streaming off its wingtips that it's a typically humid Chicago summer day!

F18 Hornet flypast with landing gear and tailhook extended
F16 Fighting Falcon tight turn with afterburner and water vapor

Completing the roundup of current American fighters is this F-16 Fighting Falcon, which also shows that it's no slug when it comes to pulling clouds of vapor in a fast turn!

The F-16 and F-18 both resulted from a contest in the mid 1970s for a light-weight fighter to replace existing designs.   Unusually, both aircraft showed enough promise to be brought into service, but the navy opted for the F-18 Hornet because of its twin engine design, which provides a significant safety advantage when you're flying long distances over water and an engine fails.

The organizers of this show make a particular effort to include displays by all branches of the American military, including the coast guard, which was represented by this fast patrol boat and the HH-65 Dolphin helicopter, which is used in a variety of roles including search and rescue.   Here it's shown with Navy Pier in the background, named from its days as the navy's main port of embarkation for troops from the midwest heading to war in Europe.   Apart from a fire department helicopter, the Dolphin was the only helicopter on display at the show, which is a shame, because there were also meant to be Blackhawks and Apaches flying.   The Blackhawks did make a brief foray off the end of Navy Pier, but didn't do even a single flypast and the Apaches didn't show up at all, unlike previous years, when several of them have flown around and hovered menacingly just above the water near the show center at North Ave Beach.

Coast Guard HH65 Dolphin helicopter and Coast Guard boat

The show always finishes with a routine put on by the air force Thunderbirds display team or the navy Blue Angels display team.   This year it was the turn of the Thunderbirds, and the crowd went crazy each time they made one of their apparently death-defying fast head-on passes.

Thunderbirds head-on pass above Coast Guard boat