Steve Nierenberg, Program Director at Princeton Flying School (PFS) Interview with Ken Greenberg, Publisher, Princeton News Network (PNN)
PNN Ken: I recently learned that Princeton Airport is home to one of the oldest and most respected private pilots flight training programs in central New Jersey. In fact, since 1979 Princeton airport has been training lots of civilians just like me to learn to fly. But who are these people that are getting their private pilot’s licenses at Princeton Airport? To find out, I tracked down Steve Nierenberg, the Program Director at the Princeton Flying School at Princeton Airport to find out whether or not I had private pilots training potential.
PNN Ken: Who takes private pilot license lessons here at Princeton Airport?
PFS Steve: You would probably be between 40 and 60. They have some time available, meaning your kids wouldn’t be hugging your ankles. And you’d have a little extra cash. But I don’t want to embarrass you, but we’ve had a waitress come here and ride her bike from downtown Princeton and put her tip money on the table and tell us she’s ready for her next lesson. So if you are putting an excuse of money, I will probably believe it. But I’ll also embarrass you by trying to find her and introduce her.
PNN Ken: So it is a matter of motivation. So what motivates some of your pilots?
PFS Steve: Well, what we’ve found is that they’ve always had some sort of interest. They went up for an introductory flying lesson and they were wowed. They went up and found they had an experience of some sort of emotion that when they came down they could not express to their loved one what occurred to them.
And it was something that if they couldn’t describe it, at least they knew they wanted more of it. And that’s how it usually comes out more times than not. People say they’ve always wanted to do it, but they had other obligations in life or they weren’t ready or they had family things that were always first and they didn’t give themselves permission to do it. A lot of times a woman in their life, it says, here it is, this is your permission. And then they are extremely devoted students.
PNN Ken: So when the student is ready to get started, what are some of their first steps? What happens?
PFS Steve: They get a kit which has all the tools and books that we believe you need to learn how to fly. There’s a textbook syllabus, a maneuvers guide, some testing guides, a fuel cup, a slide rule kind of thing called an E6B. And these are all the tools that we believe you need to learn how to fly. You know, we’ve been doing this since 1975 so there’s a bit of arrogance about us that we think we know what we’re doing. Now there are some things you may want in addition to that, but this is what we’ve found is this is all you really need. And people have gotten a private pilots license with just this kit. So you get the kit, we will need a copy of a passport if you’re an American citizen or a copy of a birth certificate and a driver’s license or some governmental id. And if you’re not an American citizen, you’ll have to apply to a website called the flightschoolcandidates.gov and they’ll take you through the process and once you get approved, which about a third of our students are in that category, instructors do not distinguish between American citizens and American citizens. It would just be an issue with language if that.
PNN Ken: So I’ve got my kit and I’m ready for my first official class. What’s that like?
PFS Steve: Your first lesson was in the plane. At your first lesson, the introductory flying lesson actually counted towards your private pilot’s license. The FAA requires in our school 40 hours minimum of inner training. That introductory flying lesson actually counted towards that training. So the next lesson with the kit will start. All you need to do is schedule that next lesson.
PNN Ken: Is it a classroom lesson? Is it in the plane?
PFS Steve: We are designed for individual lessons with the instructor. The first lesson is with the instructor in the plane and we follow a syllabus in case an instructor gets kidnapped or runs away or flies off into the sunset. All our instructors follow the same syllabus. It’s a standard program that we don’t want anyone to fall through the cracks and we don’t want any information to fall through the cracks. We know that things are covered because we want you to be a very old pilot.
PNN Ken: So these are one on one lessons? I thought it was a classroom situation.
PFS Steve: No. They’re all in one on one. And the way it’s set up is you would read a chapter in the textbook, then you’d fly, you read a chapter in the textbook and then you fly, you read the chapter in the textbook, then you fight, you read your fly to reach a fly, you reach a fly. And that way you’ll be reading about the lesson that you’re going to be taking. And also what we’ve found is people under 30 though might be slow to read it first, but then when they start getting more into it, they step ahead of the game a little and they’re reading more than the adults because they’re eager. They want to know.
The syllabus. The way we follow it. It’s broken down to the three basic groups. The first a series of lessons. It’s all about you and the airplane. You being very comfortable in that aircraft. You know your favorite pair of pants, you’re favorite jacket, you know you’re really comfortable. So when you sit down, you know it’s the desk that you’ve been at for 30 years. You know where everything is. You know your left hand’s on the yoke, your right hands on the throttle, your fingers tips are just touching the flaps. You know what the view is supposed to be like on the right wing. You know what the view is supposed to be on the left wing. This is home and it should be an exceptional degree of comfort.
The first part of the training is taking off and landing. So those couple of maneuvers of course, but different types of takeoffs, different types of landings. But to a degree that you’ll do it yourself. So there are certain amount of training when the instructor believes that you have the competence and confidence to be able to do it yourself. And then you’ll be able to do it because you’re going to go through a landing and he’s going to say, you know, I didn’t help you that last landing and you’re going to say, ah, I don’t believe it. And you’re well, let’s try it again. And then he’ll put his hands on his lap and you’ll do the landing yourself. And then I’ll say, well, I think it’s time for you to do this by yourself. So it gets out of the plane and you’re do it yourself. That’s the first third of the lessons of being able to take off and land.
PNN Ken: And the plane that I’m in is a very typical kind of plane?
PFS Steve: It is a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. There are more Skyhawks, the Cessna 172s than any other plane in the world. We have three licensed mechanics that maintain them. We keep track of every six minutes the engine is on. So we have an intimate relationship with the plane. At least that’s how we feel. And we like the planes. They’re safe, they’re workable.
PNN Ken: And when I’m taking the lesson, I’m in the same kind of plane every time.
PFS Steve: Absolutely. We’re not throwing you any curves. But if there is a curve, you’re going to be able to handle it because you’ve had the training. That first time you land, you’ll be about a half inch taller. People usually are, but you may not believe me, but that’s, that’s what I see. Or I could be shrinking, but my experience is that people are pretty tall. It’s a very ego enhancing experience.
So now that you have the comfort, the command, the competence to be able to take that plane by yourself, start it, taxi down the runway, take off, do a maneuver tor two and land.
The next third of your pilot training is all about going to another airport. You will earn about weather and you’ll know more about whether than anyone on television, weather, radio communications, certain maneuvers and it’s all about navigation from one place to another. And how you do that. And that’s a large part of the training is that the navigation with the weather and the radio communication with a towered airport.
PNN Ken: I would imagine that many students would come in thinking that just learning what they learned in the first third is the hardest part or the main part of learning to fly an airplane. But what I’m hearing is you actually can conquer that within the first third. Now all of a sudden you’re getting into nuances or other important things.
PFS Steve: Talking, radio communication and navigation. Very important. How you point the airplane, in what direction if the wind is changing on you or the wind is coming from the West, the wind is coming from the North or South West. How do you know what to do? And if you have friends that are coming with you or some very large friends, how much fuel are you allowed to take?
PNN Ken: Radio communications. Who am I talking to?
PFS Steve: You are talking to other airplanes because at this airport, we are a non-towered airport. In other words, there is no airport tower here. So there’s this special set of rules that we follow. There is some comfort in the first part of the learning. When you go and start the plane, you go to the end of the runway. You don’t need permission from the tower to take off. You don’t need permission to land. It’s all by voice commands to see and be seen airport. There’s a special set of procedures that we use that all pilots are trained in to announce where they are, announce where they’re going, their identity. So other planes you don’t bump into them. And we haven’t lost a student yet because of it and we don’t plan on doing that in the future. So it works out. We think it’s pretty valuable in learning.
PNN Ken: What happens when I fly to a towered airport?
Radio communication to other airplanes and also the tower. So the tower will tell you where to go, how to land. If y ou’re going to go to another airport with a tower, you’re going to say, I’m requesting to land in this runway and I’d like to go to this spot in the airport. And they’ll give you directions on how to do that. And you want them to do it because there was a lot of other activity at larger airports and they’ll guide you through.
PNN Ken: So that sounds like a very important section. The section 2. So I feel now I know everything. What else do you have to teach me?
PFS Steve: The third part is just wrapping everything together to ensuring that you’re safe, you’re competent or confident and preparing you for the final test we refer to as the check ride because the FAA requires a written exam, an oral exam, and a practical exam. We prepare you for every step of the way through practice, through training, we have practice tests and you’ve taken so many practice tests here. The representative from the FAA will say, well, let’s see what you got, or the your final check ride and then you’ll go, I’ve done this so many times, piece of cake.
PNN Ken: So you’ve taken me through taking the actual course. I practiced for my pilot’s, I get my pilot’s license. I’m happy as a clam. Then what do I do?
PFS Steve: You may not be able to talk to other people because of the smile on your face will be so broad. It will radiate pride as you walked down the hall. Once you get your private pilot’s license, you could rent any one of our planes. You can go anywhere you want. We rent all of our training airplanes and as matter of fact, right now we have four people that are touring America and they are from the Netherlands and they arranged to come to America and tour America by using our airplanes. So if you wanted to, you could fly to a mini vacation or a large vacation. My folks are in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I could choose to drive in two and a half hours or for 35 minutes on an average day I get fly there.
PNN Ken: Two seat planes? Four seat planes?
PFS Steve: Four seat planes. Also, some people commute here. They fly in from other airports where their home is, they fly here. They either have a car waiting or they have a car parked here. They go to work, they come back, they fly home. There’s some people that visit kids in other cities, their kids or friends. Some people use it for work, other people use it for pleasure. They want to have lunch in Atlantic City or breakfast at another airport. They go and you fly direct and then you come back.
PNN Ken: I noticed there’s a car rental place here.
PFS Steve: A lot of airports have car rental places. So if you go to another airport there is most probably a place to rent a car there or they’ll make arrangements to have a car at the local airport. Imagine that you want it to go to Martha’s vineyard from here. You can take a car, could be six or seven hours or you can take a plane and it would be about an hour and a half. Choose. What regret are you going to have the next time you get in the car and you say, Oh, I’m going to Martha’s vineyard. You can actually satisfy that by taking flying lessons here.
PNN Ken: I’m totally psyched. I’m ready to sign up for the introductory lesson. This lesson number one, I’m going to be going through the courses one on one. I’m going to be flying the most popular plane that everybody flies. I’m going to graduate, I’m going to get my pilot’s license. I’m going to be a part of a club that is like, what kind of a club am I going to be a part of?
PFS Steve: Well, you’re going to be breathing some pretty rarefied air. When you get your pilot’s license, there’s about 340 million people in the United States, but there’s only about 650,000 private pilots licenses that are issued. If you do the math, it’s almost less than one half of one percent. So that’s pretty rarefied air.
PNN Ken: Who has come here for lessons? What kind of people take lessons?
PFS Steve: Well, we have had department heads from universities. We have department heads of hospitals, chairs of universities. We’ve actually trained in astronaut because you have to learn how to fly a small plane before you learn how to fly a big plane.
PNN Ken: So you’ve had a student here who later went on and became an astronaut.
PFS Steve: And he retired from NASA last July. Not only that, but he and I soloed the same year in 1982.
PNN Ken: And you have young students too occasionally. I understand that kids in high school get interested in this. How old do you have to be before you can actually start lessons?
PFS Steve: That’s a good question. Actually. There is no age limit to start, but what we ask is they have to be able to touch the pedals of their parents’ car because in the airplane you have to steer your feet when you’re on the ground. So you can get as much training as you want before you’re 16. And at age 16 on your 16th birthday you could actually solo by yourself. That’s that first third of the part we talked about being confident and competent.
PNN Ken: So you’re telling me that legally I can fly an airplane before I can drive a car.
PFS Steve: True. On your 17th birthday y0u can get your license. And we do have people here who have soloed on their 16th birthday and gotten their private pilot’s license on their 17th birthday and then on their 17th birthday and a day they took their family up for a flight.
PNN Ken: Very cool. That sounds awesome. Well, thank you very much for bringing me up to speed on what we have right here in Princeton at the Princeton Airport.
PFS Steve: The honor is all mine.
PNN Ken: Well there you have it. According to Steve Nierenberg, the flight training director at Princeton Airport, I just may have private pilots training potential and all I have to do to find out is contact the airport and make arrangements to take my introductory flying lesson. And who knows. It could be my first step to join that elite group of private pilots flying around in those cool little retro looking Cessna airplanes. ~ For the Princeton News Network, I’m Ken Greenberg.