Born to fly “I wanted to fly airplanes since I was five years old,” says Herb Hunter, who was raised by his grandmother in small-town Seymour, Indiana. “We were dirt poor, but when I was 16 my grandmother inherited $2,000. She gave me $1,000 to get my private pilot’s license.” Hunter didn’t fly again until he joined the Air Force, where he flew the KC-135, a massive refueling plane. Thirty-five years ago this summer, he flew the KC-135 in the Chicago Air and Water Show. “I remember looking down at the crowd and being totally amazed. Even then, it was huge,” he says. For the next four years, Hunter—who had taken acting classes here and there and paid his way through college singing gospel music—was asked back to the air show as a military spokesman to announce the details of the KC-135 as it flew overhead. “Once, when I was finished, I turned around to hand the microphone back to the regular announcer, and he wasn’t there. Nobody knew where he went,” remembers Hunter, who turned back to the mic and kept talking for the next ten minutes. “The next year, they offered me the job,” he says. These days, Hunter announces four to six air shows per season, though Chicago’s is by far the largest. The rest of the time, he focuses on his primary career as a long-haul pilot for a major commercial airline.
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The (air) show must go on When Hunter reminisces about his years with the Chicago Air and Water Show, it’s hard not to get swept away by his passion for the event. “It’s the only show of its kind in the world, period,” he says, giving props to the Mayor’s Office for working tirelessly to make it happen. Among the million faces that line the lakefront on a typical show weekend, Hunter recognizes some regulars. “There’s one woman...she comes up on the platform and gets me to autograph her program every year,” he says. “And you’ll always meet a young military person whose excitement for aviation came from watching this show with his or her family as a kid.” But even with a rapt audience and his self-assembled book of facts about every plane and every pilot laid out in front of him, some air-show days become Mother Nature’s victims. “There was one day [more than a decade] ago when we had a ceiling of 400 feet: one of those big fog fronts that just hangs across,” says Hunter. “There was no show. So I just talked for three hours with no airplanes. We turned it into a sing-along with interviews.” Another year, he found himself wearing a coat, gloves, long underwear—the works—in the middle of August. “A northeaster blew in,” he says. “It was the worst weather I’ve ever seen.”
Practice makes perfect Hunter’s brain is a treasure chest of historical information and crowd-pleasing anecdotes about aviation, which he can rattle off with barely a glance at the page. “The only time I’ll ever use a script is if I’m doing a demo,” he says. His goal as an announcer is to teach spectators something about flying that they wouldn’t learn just by looking up at the sky. “I get out there on the platform, and I look off to the right or left to find someone’s face that looks like they’re really listening to what I’m saying. I’ll see them nodding along or looking right at me,” he says. “I’ll start addressing that particular person, and then it becomes personal.”
Crowd control “The crowd is divided into two groups,” says Hunter. “The people who like traditional air-show acts—like the AeroShell Aerobatic Team in those roaring, smoking T-6 Texans, which were the advanced trainer planes for World War II pilots—and the people who like newer acts like Sean Tucker in his Challenger, which is high energy and exciting.” Hunter enjoys the whole thing, actually, even after three decades with nary a missed show. “Our site is incredible,” he says of Chicago, where he lived for 20 years (Hunter now resides in Daytona Beach). “I’ve flown into big cities across the world, and sure, you see mile after mile of high-rises, but it just looks like people living on top of each other. Chicago—the way the skyline just comes straight up out of the water in the most dramatic way—it looks incredibly beautiful from the air and the ground," he says. "I can’t tell you how special this show is to me. It plays to family and the common man."