Flying has always been a part of James Peeler’s life.
The owner of Northbrook International Ultraport, located at 2491 N.C. 274 in Cherryville, Peeler spends much of his time in the air.
“You don’t think of any of your ground-bound problems,” he said.
Peeler is a certified private pilot, ground instructor and flight instructor.
The Gaston County native grew up a block away from the old Gastonia airport (on Linwood Road). He had his first airplane ride at 4 years old.
When he was little, he would often pretend to be Superman, but he soon realized not everyone was granted the power to soar through the sky without additional, and necessary, equipment. While he said most young boys dream of flying, Peeler didn’t stop there. He made it his reality, despite a fear of heights.
Flying allows one to be in control and is a different feeling than being at the top of a tall building or climbing a ladder, he said.
He served in the Army Security Agency (ASA) in the Vietnam War, during which he was shot out of a helicopter over Laos.
On board were six men. Only two, including Peeler, made it out alive after surviving three days in the jungle.
That memory still lingers, and, since then, Peeler has avoided helicopters.
“I prefer airplanes,” he said.
Not all experiences during the war were negative, however. It’s also how he met his wife, a native of South Korea.
Once he returned home, around 1972, he soon resumed his passion for flying.
At first, he dabbled in hang-gliding.
“I ate half the beach,” he joked.
This led him to decide that he needed an engine.
He received ultralight-franchise training in Texas and then came back home to Gastonia. After working in the area, including owning a flying facility in Dallas for a while, Peeler eventually came upon his current property, 30 acres in total.
It was up for auction by the widow of Austin Beam and included two tracts of land, mostly consisting of cornfields. He purchased it in 1988 and soon registered it with the Federal Aviation Administration. Northbrook International Ultraport became a designated flight park in 1992.
The “jungle,” as Peeler described it, needed extensive work, including leveling, to allow for his runway. At 1,200 feet long, he typically needs only half of it to safely land his ultralight and light-sport planes. General-aviation aircraft would need all of it, he added.
A shorter, 800-foot-long runway is also on the premises.
He additionally offers hangars for rent and is an authorized dealer of ultralight aircraft, providing on-site assembly and assistance.
Peeler currently owns four planes, which he will buy and sell around.
Over the years, he’s trained roughly 3,100 people. He prides himself on the fact that not one of his students has ever sustained an injury during his instruction.
Light planes, he said, are the safest (and least-expensive) form of aviation. Driving to and from the airport is the most dangerous part, he said.
He doesn’t allow anyone without proper training to fly in or out of his ultraport. He also doesn’t allow untrained pilots to purchase any aircraft.
“If they don’t fly, they can’t buy,” he said.
His clientele has ranged from teens to a 92-year-old — who wanted to scratch “learning to fly” off his bucket list — and has included males, females, residents of Texas, Florida, New York and more. Most come from a 250-mile radius, however.
“It’s easy to fly — if it was hard, men couldn’t do it,” he joked.
The length of training varies depending on the certification level desired, whether it’s for a sport-pilot or an ultralight license. He usually has anywhere from about half a dozen students to nine on a regular basis. Once they graduate, a new wave can begin.
“I just try to impart what little bit I know,” he said modestly.
Flying, however, can’t happen every day. He flies during daylight hours and safe weather conditions only. He also limits flight lessons to no more than two hours, to prevent “sensory overload.”
Things have slowed down a bit from previous years, with prices of planes having gone up and people’s disposable income taking a hit during the economic downturn.
Nonetheless, he isn’t in it for the money. Many of his students have become his lifelong friends, often helping out with maintenance work and participating, along with Peeler, in various “fly-ins” at other airports and nearby airstrips —anywhere you can fly a Cessna — in the region and throughout the country, at times.
The largest is in Oshkosh, Wis., which he attended in July. At roughly 1,100 miles away, this requires frequent stops for fuel, taking about a day and a half in total.
Ultralight flying, he noted, is not about how fast you get somewhere but, instead, about enjoying the trip.
“I learn something new every day,” he noted.
Seeing the look on a student’s face the first time he or she flies solo is part of why he does what he does.
“To me, that’s what it’s all about,” Peeler said.
If his students have learned something and had fun, then he feels he has done his job.
The camaraderie with fellow pilots has enabled him to form a strong network within the ultralight community, and he spends many a weekend on trips to various functions, events and excursions to the beach. He also does “candy drops” for kids’ birthday parties.
“I think pilots are some of the best people in the world,” he said.
Beside allowing him to get from one place to another “a little faster,” flying also serves as a stress reliever.
“It gives you a deep appreciation of God’s green earth,” Peeler noted.
And he still gets a thrill every time he goes up, he added.
These days, he is staying busy enough to help support his “flying habit” and to pay his taxes, he said. He retired about four years ago from his day job as an environment consultant.
He shares a love of flying with his mother, often taking her for a spin since, at over 80, she no longer goes alone.
“She likes going up with me,” he said.
Once outside his backdoor, he gets an aerial view of various local landmarks and hidden treasures, including woods, trails, a creek and, a little farther away, Hart Square.
Moving forward, he is considering selling some of the property, piecing off a bit here and there.
With good health and good senses intact, he remains excited for the future. The fact that he’s still here indicates that he’s done something right all these years, he quipped.
“I’ve got a lot to look forward to,” he noted.
Continuing his passion for flying will be a part of that.
“Everyone is just as happy as they make up their mind to be,” Peeler said.
For more information on Northbrook International Ultraport, visit: www.nbiultraport.com.