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

moderate

bank. The strut of my wing is parallel to the ground, just as my

instructor,

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

communicating

through headsets, Douglas leans over, as if revealing a secret,

telling

me that our foot pedals steer the plane, not the handles. He

demonstrates

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

plane’s

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

"Macy’s"

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

parallel

along Route 1 on our return, gliding over Forrestal Village to

downtown

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

required

air time necessary to achieve various licenses. Me, I’m one hour

closer

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

furniture

store in New Brunswick and were not pilots, so her interest in flying

is acquired from her husband, Richard. He had earned his private

pilot’s

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

sightseeing

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

because

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

pilots.

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

truth,"

says Naomi, "because people who want to fly range from the

newspaper

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,

"When

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

appeals

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,

Washington

D.C., or Vermont for a sightseeing tour and a same-day lunch is

achievable.

Flying to business meetings or a wedding offers a faster, more

pleasant

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,

and leave."

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

instrument-rated

pilot. Once airborne, and seeing the conditions for himself, Kennedy

should have returned with his wife and sister-in-law to the airport.

He didn’t.

"Unfortunately, we all suffer from Get-There-Itis." says

Nierenberg.

"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

released

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

aviation

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

editors,

the headlines flash again: The August 9 collision in Burlington County

between two small craft that took 11 lives is still under

investigation.

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

undergoing

some reconstruction. Adjacent land has been purchased, allowing the

runway and taxiway to be upgraded to meet current FAA optimum safety

guidelines.

People who become pilots say they have always had an interest in

flight.

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

clouds,

and that’s enough for me . . . for now.

For information on flying lessons, airport tours, and

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

unusual

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.


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