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Flying is Hunter’s childhood dream

Thu, Aug 23, 2012

Blue Angels over Lake Michigan

Herb Hunter has become the legendary voice behind the Chicago Air and Water Show. But the show is not about him, or even the pilots swerving and nose-diving in their jets. It’s about the kids, says Hunter. And that’s how it has always been.

“When you see some young person who’s just totally infatuated with aviation and is down there watching, nine times out of 10 – if you give them some hope – they’re going to give it a shot,” Hunter said of the thousands of young aspiring pilots in the crowds on the beach.

Some of those kids end up giving it more than a shot. A few years ago, there was an F-16 pilot performing in the show who grew up watching it from the crowd. Every year, he rode his bicycle to the beach and dreamed he’d someday be a participant instead of a spectator. Years later, that’s exactly what he was doing.

The first Chicago Air and Water Show was put on for such youngsters with big dreams. Chicago Park District Supervisor Al Benedict came up with the idea for the show in 1959 as a way to entertain the children in the city’s summer programs. Back then the focus was on the “water” part of the show. The only air act was a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter fly-by. The rest of the acts involved skiers, swimmers and boaters.

The kids loved it, but they were already dreaming bigger. As Benedict supervised a group of them crossing the street, one young boy holding his hand suggested Benedict bring the Thunderbirds next year. Benedict laughed, but his face grew serious a moment later. That’s actually a good idea, he thought.

Next year the Thunderbirds made their first appearance at the annual Chicago Air and Water Show.

The show has only grown bigger and better over the years, with new technology and a shift from a water-focused show to an air-focused one. According to Hunter, the biggest advance has been the development of the F-22. “The airplane just does things that jets aren’t supposed to do,” Hunter said of the jet that can even fly backwards. “When I see it, I think of the old movie Star Wars. I think, ‘It’s not possible. How can this guy do that?’”

But despite the advances in technology, it remains a free show for anyone to enjoy without having to purchase anything, except perhaps a bus ticket to get there.

“I think the fact that it’s for the children and that it is free for all the folks in the city of Chicago and their guests makes it special,” Hunter said. “I think it’s a very, very special show, and I’ve always been honored to be a part of it.”

This year is a little more special for Hunter. It’ll be his 25th year as announcer for the show. Just like those kids on the beach dreaming about someday flying the jets in the show, Hunter had a big dream, too. He wanted to be a pilot.

Hunter grew up “a very poor kid from a small town.” He was born and raised in Seymour, Ind., without a father figure in the house. The odds weren’t exactly in his favor, but Hunter held onto his dream.

“I knew from the time I was 5 years old I wanted to fly airplanes,” Hunter said. “It’s funny, as I would talk about it growing up, people would sort of laugh. I was a poor kid. There was no man in the family. It was just me and my brother and my grandmother.”

But Hunter persisted and after his junior year in college, he applied for the Air Force, took the test and passed, and went on to training. He was on his way to becoming a pilot, and he’s been flying ever since.

Although he has a passion for air shows now, he had never attended one until he was in the Air Force and he has never been an acrobatic flier. The first show he attended was at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma.

He eventually left the Air Force and joined the Illinois National Guard. In 1979 and 1980, Hunter first became involved in the Chicago Air and Water Show, doing fly-bys with the National Guard. Then he was asked to cover for the announcer in 1981, an event that sparked a new dream for Hunter, a dream that he realized in 1988.

“The first time I ever thought about announcing for air shows was back in 1981, that first day when I walked up onto the platform as a military supervisor flying, and I got to see everything up close,” Hunter said. “I remember watching the announcer and I thought to myself, ‘I can do that.’”

Twenty-five years later, Hunter knows he can definitely do that. He knows aviation, and he knows how to keep the audience en-tertained, a necessary trait for air show announcers.

One year, bad weather overshadowed the event, but the usual crowd gathered to watch the show. When the clouds stubbornly hung low in the sky for the whole day, only one plane flew by. Hunter had to talk and entertain the crowd for four hours that day.

With two dreams fulfilled, Hunter has quite the track record. He now focuses more on helping the younger generations succeed in fulfilling their own dreams, just like Benedict did back in 1959.

But it isn’t just children who harbor aviation dreams these days, Hunter found. “There’s something about airplanes that bring out the child in all of us,” he said. “Every child likes to watch airplanes, and some of the children are 50, 60 years old.”

As the aerobatic pilots fly through the air, defying gravity and skillfully performing dangerous stunts, the dreams of the crowds on the beach are awakened.

“A lot of times your dreams are the things you make happen and that’s one of the things I try to pass on,” Hunter said. “Dream big, think big. If you don’t dream big, if you don’t think big, then nothing big will ever happen.”

Colleen Connolly, StreetWise Editorial Intern

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