Chicago Air and Water Show persists through rain and late director’s absence: ‘Seeing this, it gives me joy’

The annual lakefront spectacular returned to the city Saturday after two years of altered or canceled shows due to the pandemic.

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A member of the Chicago Fire Department demonstrates a water rescue during the Air and Water Show at North Avenue Beach, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Thousands of eyes locked on Nickolas Orozco as he fell through the sky toward the shore of Lake Michigan on Saturday.

His plummet toward the ground was only slowed by a parachute, and the feeling was incomparable, he said. It was tough to describe, but he settled on the word “peaceful.”

“The feeling is truly indescribable,” Orozco, 30, told the Chicago Sun-Times. “There’s nothing I can compare it to. Jumping out of a plane is one of the most peaceful feelings I’ve ever experienced.”

Orozco, a parachute maintenance technician for the U.S. Army for the past eight years, was one of many military members showcasing their skills at the Chicago Air and Water Show this weekend.


A member of the Golden Knights, which is the U.S. Army’s parachute team, descends with his parachute after jumping out of a plane during the Air and Water Show at North Avenue Beach, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The show, a Chicago summer staple for more than 60 years, returned in full force to North Avenue Beach with thousands of spectators and military members flocking to the lake. Shows the last two years were canceled or scaled back due to COVID-19 concerns.

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Army Parachute Team Golden Knights led the show, but they were joined by representatives from the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Fire Department and other military flights.

Chicagoans and visitors leaned back, their necks nearing 90-degree angles to watch as various planes and jets shot through the air overhead. The deafening roar of the planes drowned out conversations and elicited “oohs” and “aahs” from the captive audience, and later military-grade boats and ships held their attention while traversing Lake Michigan.

But this year’s show, a welcome reunion after two years that bucked tradition, lacked one principal member: Rudy Malnati Jr., who had directed the show for three decades. Malnati died in December at age 65 after five years living with gallbladder cancer.

While his family — wife Annette and children Holly, 22, and Rudy, 15 — attended the show this year, they felt his absence.

“It’s really overwhelming,” Annette Malnati told the Sun-Times. “I’ve been all over the place this week, but seeing this, it gives me joy.”


Annette Malnati, widow of Rudy Malnati Jr., who used to direct the Air and Water Show, speaks to a reporter during the Air and Water Show at North Avenue Beach, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Malnati, who founded the Pizano’s restaurant chain and is the half-brother of Lou Malnati of legendary Chicago pizza fame, grew up in Streeterville and worked for the city’s park district before becoming a leading member of the Air and Water Show, his wife said.

The show and the effort put into it were quintessential parts of his life, said his family, who live in Lake Forest.

“I grew up going since I was very little,” Holly Malnati said. “My dad had me at the air show when I was in a stroller.”

This year, the U.S. Navy added an F-35C Legacy II to its Legacy Flight to incorporate a “Missing Man” in remembrance of Malnati.

“It was his world; he put his heart and soul into it,” his wife said of the air show.

The show was intermittently interrupted as rain made its way through the city, causing the crowd to thin during the afternoon.

But some stuck it out, umbrellas extended and windbreakers on. “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Sweet Caroline” played over the speakers.

Ken O’Rourke, a 25-year Navy veteran from Holland, Michigan, hoisted his 5-year-old granddaughter, Hadley, onto his hip, spinning her around to the beat without an umbrella or a care. Other spectators cheered and grinned, watching the two embrace the less-than-ideal weather.

Hadley and her brother, Connor, came with their grandpa to watch their dad, Ryan O’Rourke, a Golden Knight, jump from planes and wow the audience. Connor looks up to his dad, but he has other plans.

“I want to fly the jets,” said Connor, 9.

Ken O’Rourke has been to the Chicago show before, but this was the first time Hadley and Connor saw their dad in action. But the family was there to watch the whole show, not just the Golden Knights, and they stuck around through the rain.

“It was wonderful, [the weather] broke for us to see the beginning of the show,” Ken O’Rourke said. “But we want to give everybody a chance to shine, even in the rain.”

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