U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flying over North Avenue Beach during the 58th annual Chicago Air & Water Show Saturday Credit: Lou Foglia/Sun-Times

Do you have the repeated nightmare in which you’re in college and you can’t find your classroom? I do, but this past weekend reminded me that once a year I have an even scarier recurring dream.

I’m at home, minding my own business, watching a ball game or reading a scholarly journal. (This weekend it was the gold-medal Olympic basketball game.) Then, I hear the roar of a jet fighter plane ominously low in the sky.

I hear it again. It’s even lower. I look out the window and there it is, about 100 yards away, barreling at my window at about 500 miles an hour. I can tell it’s out of control. Maybe it’s upside down.

“Wow!” I think. And that’s the last thing I ever think, though that night I lead the ten o’clock news. 

I’ve had this nightmare one weekend a year since 1995, which is when I edited a Reader cover story by Cate Plys titled “Plane Stupid—An air show is a disaster waiting to happen. Do we feel lucky?” 

I have edited hundreds of stories for the Reader, and this is the one about the annual Air & Water Show that I remember. I don’t think I need to explain Plys’s thesis. Published on the eve of that year’s Chicago air show, it was a list of other air shows and catastrophes. For instance, that very year, 1995, the Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In in Florida: 

. . . saw the death of Charlie Hillard, known as one of the world’s best pilots. Hillard finished his performance, landed his World War II-era Hawker Sea Fury, and taxied down the runway at a mere 35 to 40 miles per hour. Then his plane veered to the right and flipped over. Hillard, seated in a bubble cockpit without roll bars, was crushed beneath the 10,000-pound plane. Four would-be spectators died in two crashes while flying in to watch the show. One of the planes came down in a neighborhood of Kissimmee. 

Plys’s message was that the Chicago air show is living on borrowed time.

Last year an army parachutist was fatally injured at the Chicago air show when he collided with a navy parachutist, bounced off a building, and fell to the ground. But this wasn’t the scale of catastrophe that Plys had in mind. A retired navy admiral explained to her that there are a lot of ways a pilot can lose control of his plane:

Carroll doesn’t believe ejection increases the hazard because he doesn’t think a pilot can control a crashing jet anyway. “When you get into an ejection situation, frequently it occurs in a way that means the pilot has totally lost control of the plane. There’s no such thing as trying to steer it anyplace. His only option is to save himself,” he says. “In the jet domain, the plane can rapidly become totally uncontrollable if there’s been a midair collision, explosion in an engine, flight control fails. And these people are pulling a large number of G forces, so I don’t think you can say that the pilot is going to have much of a chance to stay with the plane and increase safety that way. And thereby turn the coin over—he doesn’t decrease safety by ejecting.”

The question then—the one I wrestle with annually after waking up from my nightmare—is whether the Chicago air show ought to be eliminated as utter idiocy before the worst happens. On the one hand, of course it should. But on the other, there’s something endearing about the human proclivity for letting the worst happen just so long we don’t let it happen again. The first time, we’ll blame God, we tell ourselves; the second time we’d have to blame ourselves.