Thunderbirds in Formation

The Best Minnesota Air Shows | Tips and Tricks for an Unforgettable Experience

Last updated on June 30th, 2019

Air Shows are a lot of fun. My favorite part of an Air Show is the look on people’s faces when it is their first time. The second they hear the sound of a get engine fly by them, their mouths open wide and their eyes light up.  We are lucky in Minnesota to have a few different shows throughout the years.

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Minnesota Air Shows

Every year Minnesota hosts a few different Air Shows. And if you are willing to travel, you can even see a few in Iowa or Wisconsin too. Air Shows all have few overlapping performers but they each bring a different level of excitement for everyone.

The Mankato Air Spectacular – June 15-16th

The Mankato Air Spectacular is going on June 15-16th. It is my favorite Air Show to attend for a few reasons. First, they close to the Twin Cities making it an easy day trip. The drive is one of my favorites because it doesn’t’ require going through big cities and road construction. Sorry, but the way 35N is right now, it’s a wonder how anyone gets there in one piece. And Mankato is a fun place to visit any time of year!

The parking is right next to the runway and they provide a tractor shuttle service to help you get to your car. You’d be surprised at how nice this is until you spend what seems like an eternity walking to your car after a hot day on the tarmac.

As far as the performance schedule, there are little break in-between performances. The breaks that they do have are just enough time to re-stock on food or look at a grounds display and then find your seat again. Everything ends with the Thunderbirds.

Thunderbirds 1-4

Duluth Air Show – July 20-21st

The Duluth Air Show also puts on a similar show to Mankato. This year they will be hosting the Blue Angels. Put on a similar show to the Thunderbirds, but the Navy equivalent. If you want to get technical, they have a slightly different aircraft that my husband would love to go into detail about why one is better than the other is. But show-wise, it’s pretty similar.

The Duluth Air Show has an added benefit of being close to a branch of the 148th Fighter Wing Air National Guard. A lot of times this means you’ll have extra Air Force at the show performing. Some are coming back from missions, while others take off just to put on a show for you. They do all kinds of different demonstrations. Things I have seen in the past include a Harrier Jet take off vertically like a helicopter, and a KC-46A refilling another aircraft mid-flight. Every air show will have different demonstrations.

If there is ever a time to invest in VIP parking, I’d do it at the Duluth Air Show. The general admission parking lot is a few blocks away. It’s a noticeable few blocks after a hot day in the sun. The other thing about this Air Show is the runway remains active. This means that there are scheduled breaks in between flight displays to let normal air traffic take off. The crowd has fun with it and waves at the commercial Delta Flight as it takes off. Those passengers never thought they would ever be part of an Air Show.

B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber with vapor

Eden Prairie AirExpo at Flying Cloud – July 13-14

The Eden Prairie Air Expo is not a traditional Air Show. The primary focus is on ground displays and getting the opportunity to meet the pilots and heroes from WWI. The Eden Prairie AirExpo also offers rides in aircraft. There usually are a few flybys and other areal activities; they do not focus on stunts and acrobatics.

p-51 Mustang

Tips and Tricks for an Air Show

With so much to see and do at an Air Show, it can get overwhelming your first time. There are things going on in every direction you turn. Here is a breakdown of what to expect so you get the most out of it.

What is there to do at an Air Show?

Military Presence

First and foremost the Air Show is a live display of our countries innovations in air travel and military achievements. If you do not support this, consider skipping this event. There will be recruiters around from every branch of the Armed services. It’s a great opportunity to take part in a bunch of the challenges each one sets up, like pushup contests and other fun activities. A word of caution, if you give them your name and phone number, they will call you as part of a recurring effort.

Displays

The next best thing to seeing the aircraft in the air is getting to touch one on a runway. Things like an FA-18F, WWII P40, B-52 and a P-51 Mustang are just a few of the aircraft they have on display. There may be opportunities to get in a few aircraft and see what they would be like to fly.

Cockpit of an aircraft

Are Air Shows Kid Friendly?

The simple answer is yes. They become popular entertainment for families because kids often get in free! The Mankato Air Spectacular is free for kids under 12 and Duluth is free five and under. So bring them all! Before going, I recommend you prep your kids with a few things:

Preparing Kids for the Air Show

Before taking your kids to an Air Show, make sure to let them know what to expect. There will be loud noises. This can include explosions and mock gunfire from a plane, to a wall of fire. This is all part of the show. This all takes part behind the runway and not on the crowd side. Whenever the Thunder Birds, Blue Angels or any other high-powered jet aircraft is in the air, expect things to get loud. So loud, you can feel it in your chest. While I won’t ruin anything for anyone’s first experience, if you have younger kids that scare easy and the Thunder Birds or Blue Angles are out, keep them close. They like to show off sneak maneuvers.

Ear Protection

Bring some type of ear protection, especially for young children. My son’s first Air Show was when he was a year old and we still made sure he was wearing earmuffs. Adults should also wear them. You can pick them up on Amazon, Cabela’s, and Gander Outdoors. They sell them at the Air Shows too if you forget. We used the same ear protection we got for the kids for the Lucas Oil Drag Races in Brainerd.

ear protection for kids

Entertainment

You may be tempted to arrive early to see all the great ground displays. But if you hold off on this for in-between aerial shows, you’ll have a much better attention span. This is a great time to get them out of their chairs. They also have a Kids Zone filled with inflatable activities kids can do for a fee.

The air show last for almost 4 hours. That’s a lot of time to expect a kid to stay interested in flying planes. At some point during the show though, you will face the inevitable I’m bored. That is why I recommend bringing a deck of cards or something small to entertain them. Chances are this will happen when a plane is doing something so cool; you will be shocked why they don’t care. Just accept that this will happen at some point.

Meet the Pilots

After each performer is done, your kids will get the opportunity to meet the pilots. This includes the Thunderbirds! Pay attention to the loudspeakers and find out where they will be. Otherwise, you can also get autographs from the pilots on the ground. Most of them stay near their aircraft and are in uniform.

Watching an Air Show and the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber

What Should I Bring to an Air Show?

Most everything you need is inside the Air Show. Including chairs, if you forget yours. But in order to save a few dollars and have a better experience, I recommend a few other things.

Unique Folding Chairs

Air Shows all have their own rules about what type of chairs you can bring in. Traditionally, any type that can be folded up into a bag and thrown over your shoulder is good. The only problem is there are 1000 other people with the same chairs. It makes it incredibly difficult to find yours in the sea of chairs. Find one that stands out. One year when we had a bunch of chairs that had a “Dicks” logo on the back for Dicks Sporting Goods store. They were very easy to spot. You can also solve this problem by hanging back by buildings and other landmarks.

Sun Protection

Sun Block and an Umbrella are necessary. Rain or Shine, bring an Umbrella! Having an umbrella over you in-between air displays will be life-changing. You laugh, but after coming home from multiple air-shows with the worst sunburns of my life, I finally got smart and brought out the umbrella.

Hydration

This is a huge money saving. The Mankato Air Spectacular lets you bring in 1 bottle of unopened water or empty refillable water container per person. They provide water satiation to fill up and get more water. Take advantage of this because it can get hot out there.

Snacks for events

What Type of Tickets Do I Need?

There are generally three types of tickets at Air Shows. General Admission, Premium, and VIP seats. All have a variety of different feature. Which one to choose depends on where you want to sit.

General Admission Tickets

The nice thing about Air Shows is that 90 percent of the show is in the air. That means you do not have to be close to the runway to see everything. So don’t worry about a tall person in front of you. That’s why I usually get a General Admission Ticket whenever I go.

General Admission is a free-for-all. Almost anything is fair game when selecting a seat. The key is to stay near show center. This is usually marked by the announcers who are on a platform next to the runway. If you cannot find them, the premium seating and VIP tents will be closest to show center. Pick a spot nearby. Sometimes it better to be towards the back because of the show because easier to find your chair.

One thing that surprises me each time is just how many people show up and fill in the gaps you have left between you and the people in front of you. Do not be too concerned, or try and stake out our spot with blankets if you are concerned.

Premium Runway Seating

The premium seating is a designated area close to the action. Being up close will give you the added benefit of getting to see any activity on the ground. This can include acrobatics maneuvers like slicing a string 10 feet off the ground with a plane. Or landing an airplane on a moving vehicle. Sometimes there is pyrotechnics and there might even be a rocket-powered truck. If they are important to you, defiantly get this package.

VIP Seating

VIP seating always has the most alluring. They come with a wide range of features, providing special food vendors, tents and chairs to sit in. This is great for people from out of town that may not have chairs and gives you the opportunity to spend some time under a tent. Past experiences, there is usually space in front of the tent to view so it does not obstruct your view.

Finding a Seat at the Air Shows

Taking Pictures

Let’s get real for a second. You will not be able to get a decent picture of an airplane flying with a cellphone. Most pocket cameras will not have the zoom required either. If you have those kinds of cameras, just sit back and enjoy the show. Those cameras will only be able to get a decent picture of ground displays. If you do want a decent picture of planes in the air, make sure you have a good telephoto lens on a DSLR style camera.

Lucas Oil Biplane at the Mankato Air Show

Want More Minnesota Air Show Fun Year Round?

If you are still Jonesing for more Minnesota Airs Shows, visit the Minnesota Air National Guard Museum in St. Paul. It’s a secure facility so you’ll need to make a reservation before visiting. But they have a lot of different ground displays that you can see year round. You can also visit the Minnesota Military Museum in Little Falls with no reservation. They host a lot of Macro Artifacts including planes, tanks, and other vehicles.

Going to a Minnesota Air Show is a mix of national pride, seeing enjoining marvels, a great outdoor festival and a thrilling show all wrapped into one. I’ve yet to meet someone that hasn’t come back from one without going WOW. While you do not need to attend every year, going at least once in your lifetime should be on everyone’s list.

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Get the low down on all of Minnesota's best air shows. What to expect and and how to have a great time if its your first time.

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