A free lunch and free airplane rides helped draw hundreds of people to the Willmar airport Sunday for the 10th anniversary celebration of the airport’s still relatively new location and facilities.
Many of the guests were Willmar residents who had never been to the new airport in their backyard, said Patrick Curry, chairman of the Willmar Airport Commission.
“I’m so pleased that these people came out here from Willmar today,” Curry said. “I’m totally pleased. Thrilled.”
“Awesome” was the word that 8-year-old Blake Kohls used to describe his very first airplane ride.
Blake and his mother, Kat Kohls, of Willmar, had their names drawn for a free ride in one of four privately owned planes used to showcase the airport.
“I saw my grandma’s building and I saw lots of cars, and they looked like my toy cars,” said Blake, who was grinning ear to ear while talking about his ride in a sleek, pink plane nicknamed the Pink Lady.
Owned by two local business and used to ferry employees across the county, the Cessna 425 Conquest I had been owned by Suzanne Parish, a notable member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II who co-founded an aviation museum in Michigan.
The plane, which has been in Willmar about five years, features hot pink stripes and the impish logo that Walt Disney created specifically for the WASPs back in the 1940s.
“It’s kind of a famous airplane,” said Ron Buchanan, a contract pilot who frequently flies the Pink Lady for corporate clients. He was busy Sunday giving many first-time fliers an aerial view of Willmar.
It’s one of many planes that come and go on a daily basis at the airport.
“It’s hard to get people to realize this is such a hard working airport,” Curry said. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve never been here before. They live in Willmar—and we’ve been here 10 years.”
The airport is also known as John L. Rice Field, in honor of the facility’s first managers and fixed-base operators—John and Mary Jane Rice—who came here in 1945.
The couple helped the airport grow from a field for hobby pilots to a municipal airport that was initially located on the west end of Trott Avenue by the Industrial Park.
The airport moved in 2006 to the current 740-acre site about two miles further west on state Highway 40.
Now 97 years old, Mary Jane Rice spent Sunday in the airport terminal watching the airplanes take off and land and talking to people about the history of the Willmar airport and the future of the current facility.
“It’s wonderful,” Rice said of the airport. “We’re very fortunate to have it.”
She wonders if the long-held dream of having a commuter airline service in Willmar will ever happen, given federal funding cuts to small airports.
Rice said her husband, who had been a World War II air force instructor, would have been very happy with the new facilities in Willmar.
“He would be amazed,” Rice said. “Everything he’d worked for was worth it.”
The anniversary celebration had been in the works for months, but up until the last moment, Curry thought it was going to be a flop.
He was on the grounds at 7:30 a.m. Sunday—in the rain and soaking wet—to make preparations and at 10:40 a.m. “I wanted to go home and cry because nobody was here,” he said. “All of a sudden they started showing up.”
Maybe it was the food and chance to win a free ride, or maybe it was curiosity, that drew people out to the airport for the day, Curry said, adding quickly, “I think it’s pride.”