In 1911, a mere eight years after the Wright Brothers proved that gravity was fallible, Sarah and Paul Bohmer founded Bohmer’s Field, a modest airfield on the outskirts of Princeton. With little air traffic, aviation was more of a sport in those days, but the foundation had been laid for what would become Princeton Airport.
On Saturday, September 17, Princeton Airport will host an all-day open house celebration honoring its 100th birthday. The event lifts off at 10 a.m. and will feature aircraft from various eras of aviation — everything from home-built craft to classic warbirds. The event is free and its rain date is the following day. Call 609-921-3100 or visit www.princetonairport.com for more information.
Bohmer’s Field evolved as a working airstrip thanks to early pioneers and tinkerers. One of the Bohmers’ earliest aerialists was a draftsman from Germany named Richard Newhouse. Newhouse, who studied engineering in Germany, came to the United Stated in 1908 and started designing and building aircraft (including dirigibles) in his backyard in Vermont. Newhouse had became friends with a neighbor named George Schmitt, who loved aviation, and this, according to a 1976 article in the Princeton Recollector newspaper, inspired Newhouse to build his own flying machines.
Newhouse moved to Rocky Hill and continued building aircraft in his backyard. By 1911 he took his designs to the air via Bohmer’s Field.
But it was a short-lived career. Richard built a plane in Rocky Hill that his friend, George Schmitt, crashed in Vermont, killing Schmitt and a passenger. The crash, and the growing cost of making aircraft, soon got the better of Newhouse, who stopped building by 1912 and concentrated on his work as a draftsman at Terra Cotta Company in Rocky Hill.
Bohmer’s Field, however, continued to thrive and grow — and the Bohmers were not through with the Newhouse family. In 1927 Newhouse’s eldest son, Werner, started to fly, and Richard re-entered the aviation world. In 1929 Richard and Werner began the Newhouse Flying Service at the airfield, which by then was renamed Princeton Airport.
The flying service did well, even during the Great Depression, when Newhouse had 19 planes. According to a 1931 Department of Commerce Airway Bulletin, at that time the airport was 70 acres, had two unpaved runways, and a hangar with “Princeton” written on it.
Newhouse Flying Service continued until World War II, when Richard’s five sons all went into the military — four as pilots — and he had to give up the business.
The airport, despite its new moniker, remained under the ownership of the Bohmer family, though Howard Bartholomew Jr. became the airport’s operator after the war.
He ran the airport until the 1960s, when it was sold to Webster Todd. By this time the airport condensed to 50 acres with one east-west runway that Todd had paved, plus the taxiway, terminal, and two sets of hangars.
Todd sold the airport to Metro Aire Inc. in 1976. Metro Aire introduced a full-service operation including a commuter airline named Princeton Airways, run by the Van Dyke family. But neither Metro Aire nor Princeton Airways lasted long. The national air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981 crippled the operations and the airport was put up for sale later that year.
At the time there was much worry in the region that the 70-year-old airport would cease being a hub of aviation — or worse, be cashed in for the rapidly escalating home and shopping center market that was booking at the time.
But after four years on the market, Princeton Aero Corp., consisting of Naomi and Richard Nierenberg and their son, Kenneth, bought the airport in early 1985. The Nierenbergs had operated a full-service operation at Kupper Airport (a.k.a. Central Jersey Airport in Somerset County) for 18 years when they went in search of a new home facing the expiration of their lease.
The Nierenbergs brought their services to the dormant airport, wrangled some pilots, and set out to upgraded the lighting system. In 1987 Princeton Aero Corp. built 16 hangars. Soon after it welcomed Raritan Valley Flying School, which provides flight training for recreational and professional pilots.
With the growth of the student population, the school added airplanes for area pilots to rent. The maintenance shop expanded; the tie-down area increased; and Princeton Airport was back to a full service operation by the end of the decade.
The airport’s growth coincided with that of the Princeton region itself. In the 1980s corporations and office parks, not to mention shopping malls and homes, sprouted like corn. Land values increased rapidly and municipal services were stressed. Highways became congested, and housing values skyrocketed. People were in search of peace and quiet in suburbia — even if suburbia happened to be next to an airport.
Conflicts between residents and the airport grew as the airport’s business expanded. According to the Nierenbergs, no matter how the management tried to appease these homeowners and the governing officials, nothing worked. Any improvements to the airport were met with great opposition, even when the proposal was for safety improvements.
Between the harassment by some of the neighbors and the obstacles put forth by township officials, enormous time and money were wasted to save the viability of the airport, the Nierenbergs said. Eventually the township committee passed ordinances that forced the airport into litigation — ordinances that infringed upon the jurisdiction of the FAA and the New Jersey Division of Aeronautics.
A court battle ensued until 1993, when a state Superior Court ruled in favor of the airport’s plans for expansion. Montgomery Township immediately filed an appeal.
Princeton Airport, however, had been designated a relief airport, meaning one that could take overflow traffic from commercial airports if needed. This designation enabled the airport to apply for FAA Airport Improvement Program funding for safety improvements. This too was interpreted by tense neighbor relations from residents who feared Princeton Airport would become a jetport. The movement to stop the airport eventually involved senators and congressmen.
The airport’s largest allies were, not surprisingly, pilots. Princeton Aero Corp.’s legal defense fund, in fact, started with a $1,000 donation from a former student of the Nierenbergs who had also bought an airplane from them. Soon, checks ranging from $5 to thousands of dollars poured in from aviators who did not want to see the airport go away. Eventually, the airport raised $60,000 in donations to help it fend off angry residents and political tumult.
With its federal money, however, the airport reconstructed its taxiway. From 1993 to 1996 Ken Nierenberg, the airport’s manager, and attorney Tom Hall began quiet negotiations to resolve the differences. A compromise was finally worked out — the airport would continue with its (smaller) build-out plan and the township would drop its appeal.
In 1999 the management built eight hangars able to accommodate several model twin engine airplanes. By the time these hangars were completed, they were completely filled. Princeton Airport’s major improvements were completed in 2001.
The major feature of the expanded airport was its size, which doubled to 104 acres. The expansion gave the airport the space to add a 3,500-by-75-foot runway, the first new runway constructed in New Jersey in over 30 years. To brighten the airport at night a new pilot-controlled lighting system was installed, making the airport available 24 hours a day.
Added to all this was a much-improved ramp to dock transient planes and helicopters — those belonging to fliers who would come to Princeton to visit or conduct business for a day or two before heading elsewhere.
These days the airport has almost 90 hangars and a two-floor office building that also houses the classroom, a pilots’ lounge, and several aviation companies. In addition to the Raritan Valley Flying School, Analar Corp., a helicopter charter service, Nassau Helicopters, Pacific Air Corp., and Air Transport are based at Princeton Airport.
The open house caps months of events commemorating the airport’s centennial, including a June visit by Richard Newhouse’s great-grandson. Hayden Newhouse flew a restored 1931 Brunner-Winkle Bird from Illinois to Princeton for a commemoration.
Naomi Nierenberg says the simple fact that the airport exists in New Jersey is a major achievement.
The aviation industry, once thriving here — the state had about 100 general aviation airports after WWII — has declined due to land values, pressure from neighbors, property taxes, and increasing problems in the industry. “Princeton Airport has survived,” she says. “It is one of about 43 airports left in the state, and many are fragile.”
As for the future, Nierenberg says Princeton Aero Corp. hopes to make clear the economic benefits the airport provides the central New Jersey area.
She also says the airport is on the “green” path — hundreds of solar panels are being installed on the roofs of the buildings right now.
It is a major investment, she says, but one the family is willing to make to keep aviation in Princeton for another 100 years.
Princeton Airport/Raritan Valley Flying School, 41 Airpark Road, Princeton 08540; 609-921-3100; fax, 609-921-1291. www.princetonairport.com.