Spending time as a janitor in his early 20s was one of the most formative roles in Michael Peters’ life. Not only for the doors that it opened for him in the aviation industry, but also for introducing him to the community he would move to decades later—Leeward Air Ranch (FD04).
“I grew up in Ocala [Florida] and always wanted to be a pilot, from the time that I was a little boy,” Peters said. “I went into the Army at 17 to be a warrant officer, a helicopter pilot—as I had learned to fly in high school. But I couldn’t because my vision went bad, so I became a crew chief and door gunner on Hueys [helicopters]. After four years, I came home and my first job in aviation was as a janitor at the Ocala [International] Airport [KOCF]. There was an ad in the newspaper, and I knew that was my chance.”
Peters and his wife, Angie, had been living downtown for roughly a decade and decided they were ready for a change of scenery in 2015. There were only two places the Floridian and aviator would consider living: on the water or at an airpark.
“A gentleman that was the manager at the time I was working at Ocala airport actually lived at Leeward [Air Ranch],” Peters said. “So, I always had this place in the back of my mind because it had the coolest airplanes, including a variety of warbirds. The community held a fly-in once a year during Sun ’n Fun [Aerospace Expo in Lakeland], and the FBO linemen went over there once to help park planes. It was fascinating for me as someone who loved aviation and was finishing my ratings.”
The central feature of Leeward Air Ranch (FD04), Peters explained, is its 6,247-foot-long, lighted, grass runway. This well-manicured turf runway is among the longest in existence and welcomes some of the area’s finest aircraft.
“It’s a great neighborhood and is one of the bigger fly-in communities, with 200 homes,” he said. “We have a lot of get-togethers and a community center, where various events are often held. On any given week, somebody is usually hosting a happy hour at their house. It’s a good time, you know? Because you have to be a pilot to purchase a house here, there is a real heavy focus on general aviation, whether it’s warbirds, sport aircraft, or homebuilts. Whatever your flavor is in aviation, it’s here. Some guys are in more modern airplanes with fancy avionics, and others are in antiques. Others have RVs only. So, it’s a really diverse place in terms of interests, but they all share the common interest of flying.”
This focus on aviation of all kinds is not by accident, according to Leeward Air Ranch’s website. The community was designed as a place “for pilots by pilots” and was spearheaded by a multigeneration family with roots in aviation, the Leewards. Their attention to cultivating a neighborhood with like minds continues to this day, as several family members are actively involved in the airpark’s operations.
It wasn’t long after Peters moved to Leeward Air Ranch when his neighbors left an indelible mark on him. Their strong interest in Chinese-built warbirds swayed him to join the ranks of their aerial reenactment organization.
“I bought a Nanchang about a year after moving in and started flying formation with others in the neighborhood who own them,” Peters said. “There were about four or five others here, and they were all in the Red Star Pilots Association (RPA), and I’ve now become the Southeast regional director for that group. We have our own little squadron here in the neighborhood, that we call the Humble Squadron—named after Richard Langer, who passed away last September. We jokingly called him our commander. And Kevin Campbell, the guy who hired me at the FBO 30 years ago, ironically, also still lived here and was a Red Star instructor. So, I was flying with him too.”
Peters said there are presently 10 or so members in the group, which performs around a dozen flyovers, including NFL games, NASCAR races, Veterans Day parades, Sun ’n Fun, and others.
“We practice mostly out of Leeward,” he said. “So, on any given weekend, you will see four, five, or six Nanchangs come in there doing passes for our hometown crowd there in the neighborhood. Everybody seems to appreciate that.”
Not only can those who sit outside their hangars be entertained by the array of airplanes whizzing by, they may catch the sights of the same aircraft performing in the distance as well. Peters said Leeward boasts a full-time aerobatic box at the south end of the runway, extending from the surface to 3,000 feet. This practice area will come in handy for an event planned for next month.
“One of the neighbors, Tim Savage, and myself have partnered up,” Peters said. “We are going to bring back an annual warbird fly-in here [on Saturday]. It’s going to be a warbird only fly-in, and we are expecting a really good turnout for that. We should have a fair turnout of both American and communist airplanes, multiple fighters, plus formation flight demonstrations by NATA [North American Trainer Association] and the RPA.”