FAIR SKIES AHEAD: “In 1985, when we moved here, we had no idea we were carrying forward the torch of aviators from 1911 at this site. We think those early aviators would be very pleased with the expansion of the runway, taxiway, lighting system, hangars, and all the navigational aids that have come into being.” Ken Nierenberg, right, manager of Princeton Airport, is also very proud that his son Jack, left, is now the third generation of the Nierenberg family to help guide and maintain the airport’s highest professional standards. They are shown beside a Cessna-172, one of the instruction planes.
By Jean Stratton
“Come fly with me,
“Let’s fly, let’s fly away!”
And as the song continues,
“Once I get you up there, where the air is rarefied,
“We’ll just glide starry-eyed…..”
If that sounds intriguing, you don’t have to fight the traffic to Newark Liberty, Kennedy, or even Trenton-Mercer Airport. Princeton Airport and Flying School is just around the corner at 41 Airpark Road.
And the opportunities are equally intriguing: flying lessons, rentals, hangars in which to park your own plane, and an extraordinary history.
Owned by the Nierenberg family since 1985, Princeton Airport has had a distinctive role in the annals of aviation.
In 1911, only eight years after the Wright brothers made aviation history, Richard A. Newhouse arrived from Germany, settled in Rocky Hill, and began designing and building airplanes. The land where he tested his planes was Bolmer’s Field, later to become the site of Princeton Airport.
History was made at the airport on November 19, 1916, when 10 pioneer aviators, members of New York’s 1st Aero Company (National Guard) completed a formation round trip from Mineola, N.Y., to Princeton. The flight, hailed by the press as “the largest number ever seen on one flight in this country,” was the first mass cross-country flight in U.S. military aviation.
Years later, in 1929, Newhouse and his eldest son Werner established the Newhouse Flying Service, and named the site Princeton Airport. Their advertising flyer offered “Charter Flights to All Points: Planes for Hire: Student Instruction at Moderate Rates and Terms.”
History continued to be made at the airport. It was from there that the first Air Mail Flight took off on November 16, 1937. Also, on weekends, visitors could watch an air show, complete with “barrel rolls and wing over loops.”
During World War II, restrictions on general aviation within 50 miles of the coast were instituted, and activity at the airport decreased. However, the airport’s two runways accommodated military aircraft, including B-10 bombers and DC-3s.
Over the years, ownership of the airport changed hands, and in 1985, the Nierenberg family, including Dick, Naomi, and their son Ken, purchased the airport, which had been dormant and for sale for four years. The Nierenbergs had previously overseen a full service fixed-wing base operation at Kupper Airport in Hillsborough for 18 years.
Area pilots responded enthusiastically to the return of the airport service. The Nierenbergs began to improve the facility with an upgraded lighting system, and in 1987 a set of 16 T-hangars was constructed.
Also, the FAA-certified flight school grew rapidly, a variety of planes became available to rent, the maintenance shop expanded, the tie-down area increased, and Princeton Airport was a full-service operation again.
Improvements have continued in the years since, notes Steven Nierenberg, Airport director of operations, and an attorney in his previous career. “We have expanded the space from 50 acres to 100, and we now have 88 hangars. We own 10 Cessna-172 planes for instruction, 10 for rent, and we have 140 planes here altogether. Many are private planes whose owners lease the space. In addition, a separate area for commercial helicopters is available. The helicopter company rents the space.”
Every 100 hours, the planes are thoroughly inspected, which is required by law, explains Ken Nierenberg. They are also inspected and licensed every year for safety by licensed mechanics.
“Ninety-five percent of the planes we have are single-engine,” he continues. “Some are two-seaters, and the largest seats six passengers. We have nine instructors, and not only are they licensed pilots but they are also trained as licensed instructors.”
Currently, Princeton Flying School (formerly known as Raritan Valley Flying School) is instructing 100 students, points out Nierenberg. “Students are all backgrounds, including from the financial field, doctors, artists, computer programmers, carpenters, etc. They are predominantly men, but we have women who like to fly too. Our students are all ages, including high school and younger, but many are in their 50s.”
And, he adds, it’s never too late. “Our oldest student is 86!”
Kids can take lessons at ages 9 or 10, he adds, but they must be big enough for their feet to reach the pedals. Both boys and girls are students, and they can’t solo until they are 16.
A minimum of 40 hours of air training is required to obtain a license, including at least 20 hours with an instructor and 10 hours of solo flying. Ground work is also included, and in addition, a written exam is required. When students sign up, they will receive a kit with a variety of instructional materials, including books.
During their training, students are advised to come at least once a week, but many come more often, as frequently as three times a week. Some students are able to obtain a license within six months.
A $199, hour-and-a-half introductory lesson (including a one hour flight) is available for people to see whether they find “the skies friendly.” Nierenberg reports that some students have never even been in an airplane before. After the initial ride, many sign up to take lessons, and of these, 80 to 85 percent become licensed pilots, he adds.
“After that first lesson, many people come into the office and are so excited,” says Steven Nierenberg. “They say it was thrilling, fantastic. There are lots of emotions — joy, excitement, a real mix of feelings.”
Ken Nierenberg can relate to that. “I started flying when I was 12 years old, and I loved it. I still do! When I’m flying, I feel free. You’re on your own, alone in the clouds. No one is telling you what to do. it’s still like an adventure.
“Also, one of the things I love to see is when students reach a milestone. Soloing is a milestone, and another is when they fly 150 miles and return. This requires landing at another airport, and then flying back here. We enjoy being part of a student’s life. It’s very exciting for them to say ‘I can fly a plane.’”
He points out that pilots have embarked from Princeton Airport to such locations as Cape Cod, Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard, the Jersey Shore, and so on. “There is also the utility of flying. You can get to places so much faster. No long road delays and traffic jams.”
Pleasure and Excitement
As in nearly all businesses today, advances in technology are key, and that is certainly true in aviation. “There is more technology in the planes now, more electronics in the cockpit, even GPS systems, and the planes are also more expensive,” reports Nierenberg. “And, of course, there are all the rules and regulations you have to keep up with.”
He is pleased to be busier than ever, and he looks forward to offering even more people the opportunity to experience the pleasure and excitement of flying.
“I have a chance to meet people who really want to be here, and who want to fly. We are a nice model for people. We have built something special here, and we’ve been able to do what we love and make it even better. We have very loyal employees. Many have been with us a long time, and everyone here loves aviation.
“I am very proud to continue our family business, and now with my son Jack, it is our third generation.”
Princeton Airport offers so many opportunities for flying enthusiasts, including just the fun of coming over and watching planes take off and land. That can still be a thrill for future pilots!
The airport also offers its hangars to rent for parties and special occasions. Area organizations, including SAVE, have had events at the airport.
Princeton Airport is open every day, except Christmas and New Year’s Day. The office is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (609) 921-3100.