Steve Nierenberg

Language itself cannot convey true awe. That’s something Steve Nierenberg has come to learn to learn in his eight years at Princeton Airport. When people take a first flight lesson, it hits them in a visceral way. But the poetry is not so forthcoming.

“Our language is so bankrupt,” he says. “They come down, they can’t [explain] what occurred.”

The newbie fliers describe the mechanics of what they did, Nirenberg says. But they can’t relate it to any other experience they’ve ever had. It’s his favorite part of the job, seeing “the look” on a the face of a 50-something business executive who has just done something that he can’t put into words. To be part of that, he says, is (for lack of a much better word) magical.

Nierenberg is the director of operations at the airport. Since 2010 he is the guy who has made sure the business is running smoothly in the day-to-day. He does a lot of sales, writes up leases, and secures grants that are so vital to keeping the business going. For the next two months, part of that day-to-day will be showing guests around the airport on Tuesdays. Princeton Airport will be hosting free tours of the grounds and the flight school every Tuesday in July and August, beginning at 10:30 a.m. More information is available at www.princeton­airport.com.

What you can expect on an open house tour is a bit of a history lesson, the chance to try a plane on for size, and an understanding of what actually goes into making a plane fly. A rather truncated version of the history is that Princeton Airport is a privately owned, public use airport that dates back more than a century. The former owners started the flight school in 1975, and that has remained much of the butter on the business’ bread since.

Nierenberg’s family bought the airport in 1985. His aunt and uncle, Naomi and Richard, and his cousin Ken, are the owners. Steve was asked to join the ranks about a decade ago, and if he doesn’t know where he will be in another eight years, he does know that he enjoys his job right now a lot better than he has in the past.

He has a lot of experiences against which to measure, too. Nierenberg grew up in Lancaster, where his parents still live. For about 50 years they owned a fabric shop. Nierenberg worked there as a younger man. His grounding in sales, as a matter of fact, came from selling sewing machines while attending Muhlenberg College.

After he graduated in 1979 he “worked in a factory making child-resistant plastic caps,” he says. Important, but hardly something that inspired. “I said to my dad, ‘There’s got to be a better life,’” he says. “Dad said, ‘You want to go to law school.’”

The thing is, dad was actually kind of joking. But Nierenberg listened. He earned his J.D. from Widener University in 1985 and worked as an attorney for the ensuing two-plus decades, mostly in the Philadelphia region. He also worked as a wine importer and distributor and invested in some high-tech companies, but when doing criminal law work, he says, it was a little dispiriting.

“No one wanted to come see me,” he says.

Because the family was in the aviation business, Nierenberg would get flights back to Lancaster to see his parents.

“As a lawyer, I was strictly a passenger,” he says. When his father contracted leukemia, Nierenberg went back to Lancaster for two years, helping to prepare the family for the inevitable death. Except his father didn’t die and is, in fact, perfectly fine.

Nierenberg eventually learned to fly himself. He flew Cessnas for a few years until he got sick, with cancer. Like his father, he’s beating it, but says “the jury’s still out” on whether he will actually get back up in the air. However, when he did fly, Nierenberg estimates he might have saved two years worth of his life by buzzing to Lancaster instead of driving.

He eventually got tired of practicing law and was asked to join the family company in 2010, though he had been associated with the business from the outside for a while before then. The time he has spent with the airport and the family members who run it have shown him a certain evolution in who takes flight lessons and why.

The school. Nierenberg says the type of student who signs up for flight school at Princeton Airport is different than it was not so long ago. “It’s less of a lark now,” he says. Even years ago, it was more of a “that looks like fun” thing to learn how to fly; more of a recreation or a bucket list item.

These days, the students are a lot more serious about getting a license or pursuing a career, Nierenberg says. They still think it’s fun; they’re just more studious. Students put in more concentrated bursts of time and are more prone to talking about “living the dream.”

Some of that might have to do with the fact that most of the flight school’s students are in technical fields, like IT and computers, he says. Younger pilots also find the school a much less expensive and more manageable route to a career than going to an aviation college, even though there always seems to be one who is heading off to a service academy to fly military aircraft.

Staying aloft. There’s an old joke about running an airport that Nierenberg tells: How do you make a million dollars running an airport? “Start with $3 million,” he says.

While Princeton Airport makes some of its money leasing space to Platinum Helicopters, some more providing airport services to charter flights that bring executives to the Princeton region, and some more still by selling and leasing aircraft to pilots, the business itself hums on two main points: the school and grants from the state or the FAA. Without them, Nierenberg says, Princeton Airport would never have been able to double its land area from 50 to 100 acres in 2000. It wouldn’t have been able to expand the runway or go “100 percent solar,” he says.

In terms of competition, Nierenberg says it’s not direct competitors that he worries about.

“We don’t feel like we’re competing against other airports,” he says. “We’re competing against attitudes and the dollar.”

Those more serious students, in other words, are often serious for a reason. They want careers. They want a place they can learn from that will prepare them for life in the industry. So while the students come in more focused, he says, the instructors and staff need to make sure their game is tight.

It might sound counterintuitive, but that translates into a “take lessons when you want” kind of approach. The airport’s competitive edge is, in other words, closely tied to the flexibility the school offers its students, coupled with a hands-on touch that sometimes keeps instructors or staff members a few extra minutes after work. Which is fine, Nierenberg says. They all tend to like their jobs.

So no, there is no shortage of joy. And that continuous parade of people landing after a first flight on which they got to take the controls, then not being able to put the experience into words, is the thing Nierenberg finds so worth it.

“When I see the look on a 50-year-old’s face,” he says, “when I see wives or girlfriends get a lesson for the man in their life, and to see their joy too. It’s nice to be able to have access to that.”

And after being someone no one wanted to go see as a lawyer, Nierenberg says the change is “a refreshing thing.”

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