While I was stuck at the airport last week brooding over a missed flight and praying that I would make it onto my next flight with my standby status, I had an idea: What if, instead of having to depend on unreliable commercial airlines, overbooked flights and missed connections, I could become a private pilot and go wherever — and whenever — I wanted to go?
Obviously, I’m not the only one who has thought of this genius idea. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), last year, a little over 47,000 people become aviation students.
This year, about 15 of them will become certified private pilots at Solberg Airport in the Whitehouse Station section of Readington’s Cessna Pilot Center Flight School, which has been training aspiring pilots since 1939.
“Flying expands your horizons, increases your radius and presents you with a whole new world,” said Gabi DiSanza, flight instructor at Solberg Airport who has been flying for six years and has about 530 hours of flight time. “Next week, I’m going to Cape Cod and Boston with a student within three hours. That isn’t a trip I could make in a car.”
According to Lorraine Solberg, co-owner of the Solberg Airport alongside her sister Suzanne Nagle, and her brother, Thor Solberg Jr., students join the flight school for the opportunity to travel more easily, to become professional instructors or work for a charter, or for their businesses since it makes it easier to meet with clients.
Hinesh Patel, a Piscataway resident and student at the school since October, anticipates receiving his certificate in about nine months. Receiving the certificate will allow him to spend more time and travel with his family and friends.
“I grew up in a very poor community and this was always one of my dreams,” he said.
Solberg said that of her current 60 students, who range in age from 12 to 80, about half come from New York and North Jersey while the other half are local. Although some of them may live closer to other airports, they choose to make the trip to Solberg.
Patel said that he likes Solberg Airport because he finds that it isn’t too crowded and that the staff is incredibly open to interacting with students and figuring out what they need. Plus, Solberg Airport has space that not all other airports can provide.
“We have 700 acres and other airports are nowhere near this wide,” said DiSanza. “Plus, this area is so beautiful.”
Every local knows that Hunterdon County is a lush area. However, I discovered DiSanza’s point first-hand when she took me up in a Cessna 152, an aircraft normally used at the Solberg Airport for flight instruction, on a clear, sunny day.
Flying over the Round Valley Recreation Area, the greenery of Central Jersey and our MyCentralJersey.com, Courier News and Home News Tribune office in downtown Somerville, I felt at-ease seemingly drifting through the area at 95 knots (or about 110 mph) and 2,500 feet.
I was a little more nervous when she handed me the reins to the aircraft and let me have time steering us and preparing for our eventual landing at Solberg, but she was right: “There’s something really freeing about being up in the air.”
Although many people would be nervous at the prospect of flying an aircraft, DiSanza said that with the proper training and mentality, the risks are small, and the profession isn’t any more dangerous than many others.
Most crashes, she said, are the result of pilots not being fully prepared by doing simple things such as making sure their aircraft has enough gas. Much to my initial scare, DiSanza showed me what it would be like if the engine failed in the air — which would only result in a gentle, five-minute, slow descent back to the ground — enough time to find a proper landing area.
DiSanza said that currently, because of the rapid retirement of baby-boomer pilots who have recently reached the commercial retirment age of 65, many pilot jobs have been opening up and airlines have been offering huge incentives to find qualified candidates. Plus, the FAA has been trying to encourage more people to get their certificates with updated maps, charts and electronic systems.
Solberg Airport students use the curriculum developed by the Cessna Aircraft Company with Cessna 152s, 172s and 162 Skycatchers.
To get their private pilot certificate, students must pass an FAA written test, receive an endorsement from an FAA-certified flight instructor, have at least 40 hours of total flight time (although about 20 more is usually necessary, according to Solberg, to pass all of the tests), 20 hours of instruction with an instructor and 10 hours of solo flight.
They must also be at least 17 (but can start training at any age), be able to speak, write and understand English, and must pass a medical exam. Some of the disqualifying medical conditions include diabetes and heart disease.
The total cost of receiving a private pilot’s license comes to about $8,800 and can take as little as a month or as much as years, depending on how much time you can devote to lessons and ground training — one flight a week will take a student about one year to earn their license. The certificate lasts forever. For DiSanza, who received her certificate about six months ago, it was well worth the wait.
“The airplane is like the motorcycle of the sky to me,” she said. “The world is so much smaller when you have a private pilot certificate.”
Solberg Airport Private Pilot’s Certificate
Where: 39 Thor-Solberg Road, Whitehouse Station
Cost: $8,800 in total. Lessons start at $49 each so you can also take them just for fun.
Time Spent: One month to a year