Princeton News Network Interview with Steve Nierenberg,
Princeton Flying School Program Director



Interview Transcription:

Ken Greenberg (PNN):  Have you ever thought about becoming a private airplane pilot? You know, flying around in one of those cool little retro looking Cessna airplanes just for the fun of it?  Or flying from one place to another instead of driving? Well, if you happen to live in central New Jersey, you’re in luck. 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 those cool little retro looking Cessna airplanes. But who are these regular Joes? Are they my neighbors? Are they my coworkers? Who are these people that are getting their private pilot’s licenses?

To find out, I tracked down Steve Nierenberg, Princeton Airport flight Training program director because I wanted to find out whether or not I had private pilot’s training potential.

Steve Nierenberg:  You would probably be between 40 and 60 to have some time available, meaning, you know, kids wouldn’t be hugging your ankles and you’d have a little extra cash. But I don’t know what embarrass you that 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’ll probably believe it. But I’ll also embarrass you by trying to find her and introduce her.

Ken Greenberg: So it is a matter of motivation. Yeah. So what motivates some of your pilots?

Steve Nierenberg: Well, what we’ve found is they’ve always had some sort of interest, or 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 you know, they had other obligations in life or they weren’t ready or they, you know, 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 says, here it is. This is your permission. And then they are extremely devoted students.

Ken Greenberg: So when the student is ready to get started, what are some of their first steps? What happens?

Steve Nierenberg: 

Well, 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, a syllabus, a maneuvers guide, some testing guides, a fuel cup, a slide rule kind of thing.

We call a E six B. 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’s 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 pilot’s license with just this kit.

So you get the kit, we’ll 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 flight school, 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 non-American citizens. It’ll just be an issue of language if that.

Ken Greenberg: So I’ve got my kit and I’m ready for my first official class. What’s that like? Your next lesson? My next lesson. My first lesson was in the plane. 

Steve Nierenberg: 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. Is it a classroom lesson? Is it in the plane? We’re designed for individual lessons with the instructor. The first lesson is with the instructor and the plane, and we follow a syllabus in case an instructor gets kidnapped or runs away or eyes 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, because we want you to be a very old pilot. 

Ken Greenberg: So these are one-on-one lessons?

Steve Nierenberg: Yes. They’re all 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, then you fly, you read a chapter in the textbook, then you fly. You read your fly, you read your fly, you read your fly, and that way you’ll be reading about the lesson that you’re gonna be taking.

And also what we’ve found is people under 30. There might be slow to read at 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, they want to know the syllabus. The way we followed, it’s sort of broken down to the three basic groups.

The first, uh, 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. Your 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 o, your right hand’s on the throttle, your fingertips 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 and over the. This is home and it should be an exceptional degree of comfort.

And that 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’s 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 cuz you’re gonna go through a landing and he’s gonna say, you know, I didn’t help you with that last landing.

And you’re gonna say, oh, I don’t believe it. And he goes, 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 he’ll say, well, I think it’s time for you to do this by yourself. So he gets outta the plane and you do it yourself. That’s the first third of the lessons of being able to take off and land.

Ken Greenberg: And the plane that I’m in is a very typical kind of right, it’s kind of Cessna

Steve Nierenberg:  Right, it’s a Cessna 172 Sky Hawk. There are more Skyhawks Cessna 1 72 s than any other plane in the world. Excellent. We have three licensed mechanics. They maintain them. Uh, we keep track of every six minutes the engine is on. You know, so we, we have a, you know, intimate relationship with a plane.

At least that’s how we feel. And we like the planes. They’re safe, they’re, you know, they’re workable things. 

Ken Greenberg: And when I’m taking the lesson, I’m in the same kind of plane every time. So you’re not throwing any curves, right?

Steve Nierenberg: Absolutely. Absolutely. But if there is a curve, you’re gonna be able to handle it because you’ve had the training that first time you land, you’ll be about a half inch taller, which people usually are.

But you may not believe me, but that’s, that’s what I see. Uh, or I could be shrinking, but my experience is that people are pretty tall. It’s a very ego enhancing experience. I’ll bet. The next third is now you, you have the, 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 to and land, right? Then the next part is, you know what, it’s all about getting to another airport. So the next third is all about, well, going to another airport there where you’ll learn about weather and you’ll know more about weather than anyone on television, weather, radio communication.

So you know, you don’t always open with a joke. Uh, Uh, and, uh, certain maneuvers and it’s all about navigation from one place to another. And how do you do that? And that’s, uh, a large part of the training is that the navigation with the weather, the radio communication with the towered airport. 

Ken Greenberg: 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 Right. Doing important things.

Steve Nierenberg: Yeah. So now you know how to apply it. Now what are you gonna do when an event changes from an experience to a command or a competence level?

And that’s what that next third is about. Levels of confidence and confidence in being able to say, not only can I take the plane up and land it, but I can go someplace.

Ken Greenberg: Right. So that’s the second third. Yeah. Learning about weather going from point A to point B. 

Steve Nierenberg: Yeah. Talking radio communication. And navigation very important. How do you point the airplane? In what direction? If the wind is changing on you or the wind is coming from the west, or the wind is coming from the north or southwest, 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?

Ken Greenberg: Radio communications? Who am I talking to?

Steve Nierenberg:  You’re talking to other airplanes because at this airport, which I didn’t mention earlier, we are a non towered airport. Now there’s, there’s no airport tower here, so there’s a 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 a sea and be seen airport. There’s the special set of, uh, procedures that we use, uh, that all pilots are trained in. Uh, to, you know, announce where they are, announce where they’re going, their identity.

So other planes, you, you don’t bump into them. And, uh, 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 radio communication to other airplanes, to the airplane, local population, and also the tower so that the tower.

I will tell you where to go, how to land. You’re gonna go to another airport with a tower. You’re gonna say, I’m requesting to land in this runway and I’d like to go to the spot in the airport. And they’ll give you directions on how to do that. And you want them to do it because there’s a lot of other activity at larger airports and they’ll guide you through.

Ken Greenberg: So that sounds like a very important section. Section two. So I feel now I know everything. What else do you have to teach me in the last third? 

Steve Nierenberg: The third part is just wrapping everything together. To ensuring that you’re safe, you’re competent, you’re confident, and preparing you for the final test we refer to as the check ride because the FA requires a written exam, an oral exam, and a practical exam.

We prepare you for every step of the way. And how do you do that? Through practice, through training. We have practice tests and you take so many practice tests here, the representative from the FAA will say, well, let’s see what you got for the your final check ride. And then you’ll go, I’ve done this so many times, piece of cake.

Ken Greenberg: So you’ve taken me through taking the actual course. I practiced for my pilot’s license. I get my pilot’s license. I’m happy as a clam. Then what do I do?

Steve Nierenberg: You may not be able to talk to other people because the smile on your face will be so broad. You’ll radiate pride as you, uh, walk 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 our trendy airplanes. And as a matter of fact, right now we have four people that are touring America, and they are from the Netherlands, and they arrange 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 aug, or for 35 minutes, and an average day I could fly there.

Ken Greenberg: Two seat planes. Four seat planes?

Steve Nierenberg: 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. I noticed there’s a car rental place here. A lot of airports have car rental places, so if you go to another, Airport that was 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 wanted to go to Martha’s Vineyard from here, you can take a car, could be six or seven hours. Or you could take a plane and it would be about an hour and a half. Choose. Yeah. What regret are you gonna 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.

Ken Greenberg: I’m totally psyched. I’m ready to sign up for the introductory lesson. That’s lesson number one. I’m gonna be going through the courses one-on-one. I’m gonna 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?

Steve Nierenberg: 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. Does that sound about right? Give or take, a few million take. There’s only about 650,000 private pilots licenses that are issued. If you do the math, it’s almost less than one half a percent. Less than 100%. Wow. So that’s pretty rarefied air. How many people on your block?

Ken Greenberg: Well, we’re in Princeton too, so we are already very rarefied. Well, who has come in for lessons? I mean, what kind of  clientele have you had?

Steve Nierenberg:  Well, we have department heads from universities. We have departments, heads of hospitals, chairs of universities. We’ve actually trained an astronaut cuz you have to learn how to fly a small plane before you learn how to fly a big plane.

Ken Greenberg: So you’ve had a student here who later went on and became an astronaut!

Steve Nierenberg: And he retired from NASA last July. Absolutely. Not only that, I don’t know if this should be recorded, but he and I soloed the same year in 1982.

Ken Greenberg: 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 here?

Steve Nierenberg:  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 and of their parents’ car, because in the airplane you have to steer your feet when you’re on the ground and you have to touch the pedals. But you can get as much training as you want before you’re 16. At age 16 and on your 16th birthday you could actually solo. By yourself.

Ken Greenberg: Very cool. That’s that first third of the part. We talked about being confident and confident. So you’re telling me that legally I can fly an airplane before I can drive a car.

Steve Nierenberg: True. And on your 17th birthday, you can get your license. And we do have people here that 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. 

Ken Greenberg: Very cool. That sounds awesome. Well, thank you very much for bringing you up to speed on what we have right here in Princeton at the Princeton Airport.

Steve Nierenberg:  The Honor is mine, sir.

Ken Greenberg: 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 joining 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.