Corrections or additions?
This story by Diana Wolf was prepared for the August 23, 2000
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
For this Icarus, It’s a Cessna, Not a Dream
I am far above the world, lopsidedly looking down
on small circular housing developments and broccoli-sized clumps of
trees. I turn the Cessna 152 plane sideways in a right 30-degree
bank. The strut of my wing is parallel to the ground, just as my
seated beside me, has demonstrated. "That’s perfect," he says.
My pride swells. I am flying.
Both my adventurous spirit and my fear of heights are challenged in
this, my first piloting experience. Princeton Airport, on Route 206
opposite Research Park, offers introductory flying lessons to would-be
pilots. Gift certificates are available for those hard-to-buy-for
people on your gift-giving list, still a popular item 25 years after
its humble beginning as a promotional offer. For me, this is a wish
come true: asleep or awake, haven’t we all wanted to fly at some point
in our lives?
My inexperienced eye sees a perfect day to fly, bright blue sky and
hefty cotton ball clouds. My instructor, Bill Douglas of Jamesburg,
with two years experience under his wings, sees the horizon blurred,
and he pushes my 9:30 a.m. flight back until the sun burns off the
haze. Weather conditions are acceptable at 12:30 p.m.
We preflight the two-passenger single-engine plane for half an hour.
We physically examine the wings, propeller, and tiny gears barely
the size of my pinkie finger, making sure everything swivels properly
or is securely connected. Today I am the pilot responsible for the
function of the entire plane.
We discover water condensation in the left wing’s fuel, a common and
harmless occurrence. To remove the buildup, Douglas stands under the
wing and tips the plane so the water will run off through grooves
inside the wing. I watch an average-sized man bounce the plane that
is about to suspend me above the ground, and yet I still climb in.
The control panel is plain, not the Crayola cacophony of blinking
dials portrayed in movies, and we check the instruments, lights, and
wing controls. There is a surprising amount of leg room and storage
space inside this cozy little plane. We roll up our windows. Now
through headsets, Douglas leans over, as if revealing a secret,
me that our foot pedals steer the plane, not the handles. He
this with a left-right dance down the taxiway, our feet pumping, our
hands not touching a single control.
We visually check for incoming flights, as they have the right of
way. Given clearance, I pull back on both the throttle and the control
wheel, and we take off into the wind, airborne with a gasp. We climb
to our cruising altitude of 3,000 feet, less than a mile up. The
dual controls allow either of us to pilot, but Douglas lets me steer
the plane through the swerves and pitches of turbulence. I’m sure
the plane will roll over, knocked out of the sky. Then I experiment
and learn the light touch of two fingers is enough to balance the
plane upright. I shiver, but perhaps that’s due to the cool 60 degree
temperature at this height.
Our speed is 95 knots, the equivalent of 115 mph, yet we’re floating
down a lazy river in the clouds. Looking out my left window, I see
the complex maze of a quarry. I watch the traffic drive along Route
202, look down on the Somerset Patriots ballpark, and read
on the side of Bridgewater Commons Mall. We pass Solberg Airport and
view New York City in the distance.
So far never seemed so close. I discover more ballfields
and swimming pools in this area than I knew existed. We observe a
jet passing by, too far away for it to disturb our path. We fly
along Route 1 on our return, gliding over Forrestal Village to
Princeton and the University Chapel.
Before landing, we look left and right for traffic as if crossing
the street in kindergarten. I push forward on the handles, and the
plane descends. The ground and the runway get closer, the illusion
that we’re speeding up. "Watch the power lines," Douglas says
as we sail over wires, a car dealership, and Route 206 to touch down
with a slight bump. We pull back on the handles, keeping the nose
up, as we slow into a parking spot. I jump down out of the plane,
wobbling on the ground, and tie down the plane with ropes. An hour
in the air felt like 20 minutes.
Douglas has logged one more hour in the air, which counts toward
air time necessary to achieve various licenses. Me, I’m one hour
to my private pilot’s license, allowing me to fly a single engine
plane day or night in good weather, if I choose to continue someday.
As Douglas says, "That’s where it starts. One hour."
"Is flying dangerous? No! Absolutely not. It’s about the safest
way to travel," says Naomi Nierenberg, president of the Raritan
Valley Flying School at Princeton Airport. Her parents owned a
store in New Brunswick and were not pilots, so her interest in flying
is acquired from her husband, Richard. He had earned his private
license during spare time while in the military, and then he returned
to college in New Jersey. They met while he was at Rutgers University
and she attending nearby Douglass College, and it was a match made
in the heavens.
Richard purchased a plane and kept it at Kupper Airport (now Central
Jersey Regional Airport). The Nierenbergs worked for a time at the
airport, while Richard earned advanced pilot ratings. "When my
husband was learning to fly and I would go out with the kids to watch,
I was not welcome in the hangar," says Nierenberg. "When we
decided to go into this as a business, we were not going to have that
atmosphere. I’m a product of the women’s rights movement. I’m used
to being in nontraditional roles."
The Raritan Valley Flight School began in 1973 to train students for
pilot licenses. Naomi took over as manager of the flight school in
1978. When the Nierenbergs purchased Princeton Airport in 1985, RVFS
moved with them. The RVFS today not only trains students, but it also
operates the onsite gift shop and it owns 16 planes for rent or
rides, as well as introductory flying lessons.
Photos, plaques, and airplane wallpaper surround Naomi Nierenberg
in her office while her watchful eye follows the comings and goings
beyond her open door. Families watch planes land and take off from
the parking lot. Students stop in and check flight schedules. Pilots
mill about. One of them, a Norwegian, explains he’s in Princeton
it is cheaper to get his ratings here than internationally. The Pilot
Shop bustles with customers purchasing airplane baby bottles, Zippo
lighters, and baby-sized bomber jackets. Meanwhile the scruffy white
airport dog Stosh pokes around the rooms.
This is a full-time family enterprise. Although Naomi never completed
her pilot’s license, her husband and their two sons are licensed
Their youngest son, Ken, works as the airport manager, and husband,
Richard, is the president. Princeton Airport is open 24 hours a day,
7 days a week. The runways are open to everybody, but facilities may
be limited, as the office is open only during daylight business hours.
"The stereotype of only the rich flying is very far from the
says Naomi, "because people who want to fly range from the
boy on up." Yet it’s true that the airport has seen its share
of famous people. Brooke Shields used the airport for her helicopter
during her college days. Actors Harrison Ford and Dennis Quaid have
graced the runway, the latter told by the on-duty instructor,
you decide what you need, I’m sitting outside on bench, call me."
Mario Cuomo and the late King Hussein of Jordan have also been guests
to Princeton Airport’s hospitality. The wife of Hussein and Princeton
Class of 1974, Queen Noor flew into Princeton Airport in May when
she addressed the Class of 2000.
With glamorous celebrity pilots as role models, flying naturally
to those in their youth. The popularity of introductory lessons as
a gift to 20 and 30-somethings is in part a financial one, because
a private pilot’s license costs between $5,000 and $6,000 to achieve.
Therefore, many pilots-in-training are older, earning their license
at their own pace. Be it 10 years or 30 days, most accomplish this
goal within a year or two. Once licensed, a flight to Cape May,
D.C., or Vermont for a sightseeing tour and a same-day lunch is
Flying to business meetings or a wedding offers a faster, more
alternative to city traffic and its attendant road rage. "People
fly into Princeton," Nierenberg says of her experiences, "and
they can take a taxi into town, wander around Princeton, have lunch,
With these pleasantries, unfortunately, come occasional disasters.
The most common causes of accidents are alcohol, drugs, or flying
in weather beyond the pilot’s capability. The latter was the cause
of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s tragic demise last year. Despite weather
reports that indicated fine traveling conditions that day, it was
hot and hazy — a day that Nierenberg recalls limiting flights
even at Princeton Airport. Compound the haze level with the fall of
darkness, and the flying conditions became suitable only for an
pilot. Once airborne, and seeing the conditions for himself, Kennedy
should have returned with his wife and sister-in-law to the airport.
"Unfortunately, we all suffer from Get-There-Itis." says
"You make plans based on this, this, and this. When you do it
in an airplane, it’s less forgiving." Kennedy lost his horizon,
down became up, and he crashed. The National Transportation Safety
Board, an investigative agency separate from the FAA, recently
its official report citing pilot error.
Nation-wide, there are approximately 17 mid-air collisions a year,
most occurring within five miles of an airport; the number has not
fluctuated in recent years. But the media still tends to portray
as a rare and unique mode of transportation, and until airplanes are
accepted as commonly as cars are, it will continue to make front page
news. Ironically, just as I am transmitting this article to the
the headlines flash again: The August 9 collision in Burlington County
between two small craft that took 11 lives is still under
I recall the logic of Naomi Nierenberg: "If there’s an accident
on the Turnpike," she asks, "do you stop driving?"
Princeton Airport boasts an impressive safety record, with its only
fatal accident occurring back in 1911. Additionally, in the 30 years
of the flight school, no student has ever been injured. Committed
to create an even safer atmosphere, the airport is currently
some reconstruction. Adjacent land has been purchased, allowing the
runway and taxiway to be upgraded to meet current FAA optimum safety
People who become pilots say they have always had an interest in
A one-time lesson makes a unique gift that could lead to something
more, something which requires a lot of work, attention to detail,
and expense. I have experienced that detail first hand, proving to
myself that I can fly. I know what it’s like to float among the
and that’s enough for me . . . for now.
Ten-Cent-a-Pound Rides, call 609-921-3100, or visit Princeton
Airport’s website at www.princetonairport.com
Since it is a permanent fixture, Princeton Airport actively encourages
the community to explore "the miracle of flight." There are
free tours Thursdays through August, weather permitting, at 10:30
a.m. The tour lasts approximately 90 minutes and includes viewing
the maintenance hangar and sitting in a plane.
For those who want to experience flight, but are not ready to try
their hand at piloting, the 10-Cent Per Pound Flights are offered
Sundays, from 3 to 6 p.m., through September. The 12-minute ride flies
three passengers and 1 pilot in a 4-seater Cessna 172 or Piper Warrior
around the traffic pattern, which is a rectangle of airspace around
the airport with the runway as one side.
Another popular activity, that also benefits charity, is Princeton
Airport’s Santa Fly-In. Every year on the morning of December 24,
kids wait with their parents in the hangar to watch Santa arrive in
a small plane, distributing gifts to the small eager onlookers, as
well as collecting Christmas gifts for needy children here and abroad.
Each spring the airport welcomes everyone to an Open House where
planes are displayed and other aviation activities are showcased.
The airport also allows Princeton University Mechanical and Aerospace
Engineering students the opportunity to apply their science directly
through an introductory flying lesson.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.