This study evaluates the potential of airborne remote sensing images to detect water stress in maize. Visible and near infrared CASI (Itres Research Ltd., Calgary, AL, Canada) and thermal AHS-160 (Sensytech Inc., Beverly, MA, USA) data were acquired at three different times during the day on a maize field (Zea mays L.) grown with three different irrigation treatments. An intensive field campaign was also conducted concurrently with image acquisition to measure leaf ecophysiological parameters and the leaf area index. The analysis of the field data showed that maize plants were experiencing moderate to severe water stress in rainfed plots and a weaker stress condition in the plots with a water deficit imposed between stem elongation and flowering. Vegetation indices including the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) and the photochemical reflectance index (PRI) computed from the CASI images, sun-induced chlorophyll fluorescence (F760) and canopy temperature (Tc) showed different performances in describing the water stress during the day. During the morning overpass, NDVI was the index with the highest discriminant power due to the sensitivity of NDVI to maize canopy structure, affected by the water irrigation treatment. As the day progressed, processes related to heat dissipation through plant transpiration became more and more important and at midday Tc showed the best performances. Furthermore, Tc retrieved from the midday image was the only index able to distinguish all the three classes of water status. Finally, during the afternoon, PRI and F760 showed the best performances. These results demonstrate the feasibility to detect water stress using thermal and optical airborne data, pointing out the importance of careful planning of the airborne surveys as a function of the specific aims of the study. © 2015 by the authors.