OWATONNA — Nearly 40 single-engine airplanes landed at Owatonna Degner Regional Airport late Saturday morning as part of the annual Flying Cloud Air Tour.
The tour — in its 13th year — is the brain child of Ben McKillan, who has been a professional pilot since 2001.
“It’s just something fun to do as a group of pilots, and it’s an opportunity to show them all the neat places they can go [with their planes],” he said.
McKillan started the air tour in 2004 while he was working as a flight instructor at Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie to get people out and flying with stops in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin.
The first tour involved stops in East Gull Lake and Duluth as well as Madeline Island and Cable Union in Wisconsin.
“We started with 10 people, students I had, and within three or four years, it had grown,” he said.
Since then, the tour has included stops at Breezy Point, Voyager Village, Granite Falls, Winona, Faribault and Springfield and drawn an average of 30 aircraft and 80 people each year with the exception of weather cancellations in 2006, 2007 and 2011, McKillan said.
Saturday’s air tour, however, drew 37 aircraft and more than 100 people out to fly in the sunshine above the clouds.
“It’s a well-organized fun Saturday thing to do, and the weather is good,” said Paul Jackman of Minneapolis who has flown in the event every year for the camaraderie and the flying.
“There’s still a good thrill when you take off on your little adventure to see what unfolds,” he said.
And this year’s adventure for Jackman? Mentoring another pilot.
Jackman, who has 61 years of aviation experience, had Carol Bergquist of St. Paul, a recently licensed private pilot, aboard his plane during the tour.
“I thought I’d ride along this first year, and I couldn’t ask for a better pilot to show me how it’s done,” she said.
Bergquist, who has had her license for six weeks, said next year she plans to pilot her own plane.
“I’ll be in the Cherokee going real slow,” she said with a chuckle.
The air tour, which featured its first-ever poker run, departed from Flying Cloud Airport at 9:15 a.m. with stops in Hutchinson, New Ulm, Mankato and Owatonna.
By adding the poker run to this year’s tour, participants received a playing card at each stop with Owatonna being the last.
Dave Beaver, airport manager, said it was a great opportunity to be included as one of the tour stops.
“We’ve had people stop for different events similar to this, but we haven’t had this one,” he said. “It’s a real neat idea.”
McKillan said this was the first year the tour has traveled to Owatonna.
“This is the most demanding tour of the pilots,” he said. “It’s busy. Usually it’s two or three stops and this one has five.”
But McKillan said there were five stops because of the poker run.
Planes started arriving at the Owatonna airport before 11 a.m., where they received their last playing card and then shuttled to Cabela’s for lunch.
Bergquist, like several others, said she had a “terrible hand” for poker.
Hiroshi Takeuchi of Chanhassen, who participated in the air tour for his eighth year, said he didn’t have the best hand.
“I wish it was a little better,” he said. “I had the chance to cheat, but I didn’t.”
The three best hands at the end of the tour had their choice between aviation oil, an aviation headset and first aid kit for prizes.
But for many, the air tour was more about flying than poker.
Takeuchi, who also assists with pre-planning for the air tour and creating the videos, said he enjoys the event regardless.
“There’s nothing that I don’t enjoy,” he said.
Ron Wagner, who flew an antique World War II aircraft, participated in the air tour for his second year but has been flying since 1989.
“It’s just a hobby,” he said. “Some people have antique cars, I have an antique airplane, but it doesn’t just sit: It flies.”
Wagner said he enjoys flying because of the travel and the scenery.
“You get to see the world from a different vantage point,” he said.
Over the last 13 years, McKillan said he’s enjoyed organizing the tour.
“It’s become a big fun event,” he said.
After lunch, pilots and passengers departed from the airport for their home bases.