GARY, Ind. — Lt. j.g. Phil Harper, administrative officer of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, used to head to the beach with his parents to watch the Chicago Air and Water Show as a kid, but cared more about the cotton candy and ice cream than the daredevil tricks the planes did.
Harper, a native of the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago and a graduate of Roberto Clemente High School, is returning to his hometown for the first time in 18 years. The veteran Navy man had opportunities to return for the holidays, but chose instead to use his leave time to visit far-flung destinations had never seen before, such as Hong Kong.
He's finally coming back to Chicago, and so are the Blue Angels that have astonished millions since 1946 with their aerobatic maneuvers. The popular Navy pilots, who fly F/A-18 Hornet jets, were grounded last year because of the federal government's sequestration, but are back to thrill onlookers with their famed diamond formation and high-altitude flying at the Chicago Air and Water Show. The free event is from 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at North Avenue Beach.
Other returning military performers include the U.S. Army Parachute Team Golden Knights, the U.S. Navy Parachute Team Leap Frogs, and two U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors.
"The performers are amazing," Harper said. "The things the Red Bull guy does in that helicopter makes what we do look safe."
Planes stage at the Gary/Chicago International Airport, the base of operations for all the aircraft that will soar over the Chicago lakefront. A new act this year is Team AeroDynamix, which claims to be the world's largest air show team.
The team consists of nine single-propeller kit planes that do aerial stunts, such as a barrel roll that changes from a fingertip formation to a diamond and a maneuver where they fly toward the crowd in an airplane shape and then change into a different shape after turning around.
"Chicago is going to see the world's only nine-ship formation loop," pilot Tom "Dubes" Dubrouillet said. "Nine airplanes in three groups right together — nine airplanes all together — do a loop right in front of the crowd. The Blue Angels are great, but they only have six planes."
Excitement is up about this year's air show because the military acts are back after being absent last year, said announcer Herb Hunter, who has been the air show's voice for more than 20 years. The popular event is the largest free air show of its kind in the United States and is now in its 56th year.
Millions attend the annual event, the city's second best attended after the Taste of Chicago.
"You get people out to the air show site, and it brings out the kids in us," Hunter said. "All of us love airplanes. We're all kids at heart, and it's a great air show."
People are invited to view the landings and takeoffs at the Gary/Chicago International Airport, 6001 Airport Road, including on practice day today.
Chicago residents and half-sisters Ida Settle, 78, and Isabella Hobbs, 96, realized lifelong dreams Thursday by being able to meet the Blue Angels in Gary and get an up-close look at their jets.
Settle dreamed of being a pilot, but her application to a flying school was rejected because it did not accept women at the time. Hobbs riveted C-65 Skymaster transport planes during World War II, when she worked at the Douglas Aircraft Co. They marveled Thursday morning as Blue Angel pilots led them around their Hornet jets, explaining how the colored smoke generators and other features work.
Hobbs said the experience meant more to her than she could say.
"Words can't explain it," she said. "Seriously."