This month marks 75 years of service at Mercer County Airport in Trenton, N.J. (TTN). On October 26 the airport will host a celebration marking the grand opening air fair at the facility on that date in 1929. The star-studded aerial event drew 30,000 aviation enthusiasts to the airport that Saturday. The airshow–featuring 1920s celebrities such as Amelia Earhart, Clarence Chamberlain, Al Williams and Jimmy Doolittle–was a safe one with no crashes. But the same could not be said for Wall Street two days later–the infamous Black Monday debacle that plunged the country into the Great Depression.
Located a few miles west of the New Jersey Turnpike, 60 miles from New York’s financial district and 30 miles from Philadelphia, Mercer County Airport has served in a variety of roles–and a couple of locations– for fully three-quarters of aviation’s history. TTN currently fills a niche as a prime home base for a few large corporate flight departments, features limited airline feeder service and supports a growing market segment of transient aircraft customers. The airport’s future character is subject to familiar factors–local politics, regional economy and national airspace development–that affect all airports to some degree.
There’s one FBO at Trenton: Ronson Aviation. Like many aviation service companies, Ronson got its start when its parent company decided to turn to aviation as a profit center. Ronson remains a wholly owned division of the company that made cigarette lighters famous. In 1910, Louis V. Aronson’s Art Metal Works received its first patent for a pocket lighter. The original bore Aronson’s initials, and the V representing his middle initial survived to become the company logo that remains to this day. Ronson’s first automatic lighter, the five-dollar “Banjo,” was introduced in 1928, the year the company went public on the New York Stock Exchange. In 1954 the company officially shortened its name to Ronson.
Ronson Aviation got its start in the 1960s when Louis Aronson Jr., son of the company founder, pushed Ronson to diversify. The younger Aronson was a Navy pilot and an aviation enthusiast, so Ronson purchased New Jersey Helicopter Aviation at TTN in 1965 and Trenton Aviation in 1973, adopting the name Ronson Aviation two years later. Over the years, Ronson has been known as a prolific Beechcraft dealer as well as one of the best flight schools in the area. Now, the FBO leases space to two flight schools and concentrates on its maintenance, avionics, hangar storage, charter and transient fuel business. Ronson also operates a new and used aircraft sales division.
The main 52,000-sq-ft hangar/office building at Ronson is divided into maintenance facilities (16,000 sq ft), storage space (23,000 sq ft) and a 13,000-sq-ft two-story office complex. The entire leasehold covers some 18 acres, including 600,000 sq ft of ramp space, 24 individual T-hangars and a 58,000-gallon fuel farm. Ronson expects to break ground before the end of the year on a new 20,000-sq-ft hangar along with 5,000 sq ft of office space.
In the late 1990s a second FBO attempted to start up at TTN. Executive JetPort acquired the rights to develop an airside portion of the former U.S. Navy Aeronautical Turbine laboratory. Built in 1949 at a cost of $22.8 million, the site includes several wood-frame hangars and a massive 450,000- gallon fuel farm. Executive JetPort remodeled some of the buildings, including one to use as a terminal, and refurbished a pair of the 12 tanks in the fuel farm, bringing them up to modern safety and environmental standards.
Within two years of beginning operations, however, Executive JetPort failed and shut its doors in 2000. Ronson Aviation director of operations Wolcott Blair believes he knows the main reason why: “As much as traffic has increased,” he said, “the airport can’t really sustain two FBOs.” He said that some years ago Mercer County, which operates the airport, decided to support corporate flight departments with plans to build their own fuel farms rather than invest in refurbishing and operating the former Navy facility, which was available. Had the county decided to centralize the fuel supply at TTN, the way many other airports do, the economics today would be quite different.
Besides Ronson’s facility and the Navy fuel farm, there are no fewer than four corporate fuel farms on the airport. Tenants with hangar/office complexes include Johnson & Johnson, Merck and Pfizer. The former Unisys hangar is now a multi-tenant facility. The New Jersey State Police and Air National Guard also base their aircraft at TTN. Each private facility is marked by an inconspicuously signed, gated driveway along airport access roads.
According to airport manager Justin Edwards, the massive Pfizer facility, which accommodates the company’s fleet of Gulfstreams and Sikorskys, “put the airport on the map,” as far as being desirable as a corporate base. And unlike most other airports of its class, TTN has room for future expansion, Edwards told AIN. A recent project headed by Ronson v-p and general manager Tom Jadico has added 10 custom corporate hangars on the airport’s west side adjacent to the airline terminal. Edwards said, “We currently have 50 to 75 more acres available for development. There are also the former General Motors plant [where George H.W. Bush’s Grumman TBM was built during World War II] and the Naval facility that could become available. That would be another 100 acres.”
Though he recognizes that general aviation will always be his focus in developing the airport property, like most airport managers, Edwards would like to see more airline service. A few start-up low-cost carriers– notably Eastwind, with its Boeing 737s– have served TTN in the past. And Edwards would like to build a second, larger airline terminal next to the existing facility with more jetways.
The airport has two runways, 6,006-foot Runway 6/24 with an ILS and 4,800-foot Runway 16/34. Boston-Maine Airways flies scheduled service from TTN to Boston Logan Airport using British Aerospace Jetstream 31 twin turboprops in a code-share arrangement with Pan Am, the Boeing 727 operator that bought the rights to the legendary name.
That’s ironic because one of the celebrities invited to the 1929 airshow was then-Mercer County resident Charles Lindbergh. Two years after his epic transatlantic flight, the world’s most celebrated aviator was unable to attend. He was away on business, scouting Caribbean air routes for business partner Juan Trippe, president of Pan Am.