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Chicago Air and Water Show Broadcaster Kris Habermehl Relishes His Role

By Justin Breen | August 14, 2014 5:20am
 Kris Habermehl will be broadcasting the Chicago Air and Water Show for the 18th consecutive year.
Kris Habermehl
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WEST CHICAGO — Veteran broadcaster Kris Habermehl knows how to make an entrance for his annual commentary at Chicago's Air and Water Show.

For the last 17 years, Habermehl has been describing the way planes fly, twist, turn and whiz by to a radio audience on WBBM (780-AM, 105.9-FM). In 2007 and last year, before he got on the air, Habermehl parachuted out of one of the planes before arriving at his broadcast perch at North Avenue Beach.

"It's different when you jump out from 12,500 feet and free-fall to 7,500 feet, get an atomic wedgie, toggle off, walk off onto the beach, and then start broadcasting," Habermehl, 50, said. "You're high-fiving yourself, you can't help but have this grin, and then you have to say something like, 'WBBM newstime is 11:48.'

 Kris Habermehl (r.) with morning co-anchor Felicia Middlebrooks during a radio broadcast for a recent Chicago Air and Water Show on the lakefront.
Kris Habermehl (r.) with morning co-anchor Felicia Middlebrooks during a radio broadcast for a recent Chicago Air and Water Show on the lakefront.
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Kris Habermehl

"They've given me a lot of dramatic license."

Kris explains why he loves the show:

This year's air and water show — the largest of its kind in the United States — runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. While Chicago's beaches and high rises are crammed with spectators, thousands will be listening on WBBM to Habermehl, who described his work on the show as "taking a technical subject and making it come alive."

"You've got to paint a word picture and to tell them a little bit about what the pilot has to do to be able to make the plane perform the way it does," Habermehl said. "A great deal of my audience is the elderly — the people who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, people who are disabled — and [the broadcast] makes their experiences come alive for them again.

"Now, in one way or another, I've become an integral part of the Air and Water Show."

It seems as if Habermehl's entire life has pointed him toward the show's broadcast booth. His father, Hanns, was a paratrooper in the German army. He also was president of the former Antique Airplane Association, which hosted air shows at DuPage County Airport and Midway Airport in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In his early teens, Habermehl and his friends would help marshal the aircraft, find out if the pilots needed anything, made sure the planes were adequately fueled and provided overnight security.

Kris says it's been a winding path that led him to the job:

Habermehl's mother, Frances — a Chippewa Indian — listened to WBBM nonstop during Habermehl's childhood in Irving Park and several Chicago suburbs. Frances' brother, Oliver Rasmussen, was the subject of the book "Chippewa Chief in World War II," which profiled how he survived and avoided capture after his plane crashed in Japan on July 14, 1945.

Habermehl has been piloting planes since he was 12 years old. He's licensed to fly single-engine planes and sail planes. Growing up in Northbrook, his free time as a teenager was spent at the former Naval Air Station Glenview — marveling at the flight paths of Delta Darts, F-14s, F-111s, P-3 Orions and other aircraft.

As a 14-year-old, he was on the base when a British Vulcan bomber crashed — killing four men — on Aug. 11, 1978. He and a friend, Iain McCowan, furiously peddled their bikes to the crash site about two miles away.

"There was a big fireball ... and I was fascinated wanting to know what happened," Habermehl said.

After graduating from Glenbrook North High School in 1982, Habermehl eschewed college and instead sought several careers, including one as an air safety inspector. He also volunteered with the Red Cross, and after the devastating Plainfield tornado in 1990, Habermehl talked to T.J. Andrew, a reporter for Shadow Traffic. Andrew suggested Habermehl — who had been told by friends for years that he had a great voice for radio — apply for a job.

Habermehl has been a traffic reporter since, including nearly 20 years in the air for CBS-TV in Chicago before leaving the station last year. Habermehl estimated he had reported from a helicopter, docked at DuPage County Airport in West Chicago, at least 100 hours a month for decades. Although he's a pilot, Habermehl is not at the controls of the helicopter when reporting the traffic. That job belongs to pilot Randy DeRaimo.

Kris says it can be tough reporting on tragedy so often:

Habermehl landed the gig broadcasting the Air and Water Show in 1996, when he said then-WBBM news director Georgeann Herbert asked him to combine his knowledge of communications and airlines into concise, fun analysis.

That's what Habermehl said he provided in teaming with other WBBM personalities, including morning co-anchor Felicia Middlebrooks. For those on the lakefront with headphones or radios, Habermehl will alert them to the right time to get a perfect photo of a plane's maneuver.

"Kris Habermehl brings his aviation expertise to the microphone, in language that every fan can understand," said Herb Hunter, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and the Chicago Air and Water Show's on-site announcer for 27 years. "His explanations come to life over the radio, and he puts every listener in the cockpit. A real professional." 

Habermehl can't believe this will be his 18th year at the Air and Water Show, detailing the theatrics of Blue Angels, Golden Knights, Thunderbirds and other attractions.

He said this weekend was hands down his favorite of the year.

"This is like the Super Bowl without playing any games leading up to it," Habermehl said. "There is still romance about it. We look at it as an advertisement on the magic of flight."

For the full interview with Kris Habermehl and other clips, listen here: