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TV’s ‘Aerial Cities’ offers a fresh look at CTA, architecture, jail — from above

Chicago is home to at least 11 Fortune 500 companies, and hundreds of promising start-ups.| Aerial photo by Smithsonian Channel

Chicago is home to at least 11 Fortune 500 companies and hundreds of promising start-ups.| Aerial photo by Smithsonian Channel

From his helicopter seat, Toby Beach has witnessed dazzling views of both rural and urban areas while filming Smithsonian Channel’s “Aerial America” and its spinoff series, “Aerial Cities.” But Chicago provided one moment that surprised him with its beauty.

“I loved watching the planes landing at O’Hare at night — that line of lights just sort of dropping out of the sky,” Beach said. “It was amazing.”

“Aerial Cities: Chicago 24” (premiering at 7 p.m. Sunday) filmed over the Chicago area from the northern suburbs down to Gary. The second of six “Aerial Cities” episodes, “Chicago 24” gives a visually magnificent tour of the city over a 24-hour period.

The adventurous aerial photography provides bird’s-eye views of, among other things, Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side, the site of Barack and Michelle Obama’s wedding; the rooftop exercise yard at the Metropolitan Correctional Center downtown; and the steps leading to Glenbrook North High School made famous in the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

With each spectacular shot, the narrator offers related and fascinating facts, figures and historical information. For example, because of the way the John Hancock Center was built, daredevil workers must clean its windows, while at the Willis Tower robots do all that work.

Many of the views shown were planned well in advance of the two filming trips over eight days total in June and September last year. The city’s major sports stadiums get their time on screen — complete with commentary about the Cubs curse and the fact that Bears fans “turn out by the thousands no matter what the score is.” The Lakefront and Grant Park make the cut, as do the former stockyards on the South Side and the giant Corwith Yards railroad terminal on the Southwest Side.

People congregate around Buckingham Fountain in an image from “Aerial Cities.” | SMITHSONIAN CHANNEL

Beach, the show’s director, writer and producer, flew over some unexpected points of interest, too. During a trip to refuel the helicopter in Gary, his crew spotted what seemed to be a giant auto dealership parking lot. The team later learned the site at the Gary/Chicago International Airport is being used to store thousands of diesel vehicles Volkswagen was forced to buy back from consumers during the 2015 emissions scandal.

“We have to try to bring theses stories alive through people,” Beach said, mentioning a Chicago-specific challenge: capturing a story about the CTA’s elevated trains. His team found LaChelle Jenkins, a 20-year veteran of the CTA system.

CTA car aerial

An “Aerial Cities” segment on the CTA focuses on 20-year staffer LaChelle Jenkins. | SMITHSONIAN CHANNEL

“Trying to film her in her cab, as she’s driving, was pretty challenging from a helicopter,” he said.

Cameras captured Jenkins as she operated a Green Line train going through the city’s famous Loop as a way to explain the train system to viewers who may not be aware of how it all works.

A Green Line L train is seen from the air on “Aerial Cities.” | SMITHSONIAN CHANNEL

The aerial cameras also filmed two local legends, 84-year-old twins Jennie and Julia Papilli, doing their daily swim in Lake Michigan. The Papilli sisters have made that two-mile swim nearly every day, weather permitting, since they were 12, the narrator explains.

Beach said he isn’t quite sure how his researchers found the sisters, but when he learned about them he knew he had to include them in the episode.

“They just seemed like a great visual story from the air, that kind of captures a unique way to start their day in Chicago,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll get a chance to see the show. They don’t have cable television.”

Read more from Curt Wagner at tvshowpatrol.com.

swimmers in lake michigan aerial

84-year-old twins Jennie and Julia Papilli do their daily swim in Lake Michigan in footage from “Aerial Cities.” | SMITHSONIAN CHANNEL