|Thor Solberg and the Solberg Airport
|This July 23rd through the 25th over 100,000 people will flock to the Solberg Airport in Readington
for the annual New Jersey Lottery Festival of Ballooning. For most of the attendees the festival is the only time that
they will visit this airport.
The majority know little about the airport and nothing about its history. So, in this article we will take a look at the history of the Solberg Airport and the aviation pioneer Thor Solberg Sr. who founded it.
|The story begins in Norway in 1893 when Thor Solberg Sr. is born into a family of eleven children.
As a young man he was drawn to excitement, embracing the newly invented motorcycle. When the airplane was first invented, he was drawn to that fascinating mode of transportation as well. He learned to fly by 1919.
|He came to the United States in the mid 1920s. Inspired by the solo flight over the Atlantic in 1927
by Charles Lindbergh, Thor wanted to be the first person to fly from the U.S. to Norway.
Thus, he made preparations to do so. His trip would be very different than the one Lindbergh took. It would not be a non-stop flight. Refueling, maintenance, and rest was planned at several places. It was still a dangerous journey.
|The route that Thor Solberg Sr. chose was approximately the route (in reverse) that the Nordic explorer
Leif Erikson took when he sailed in 1000 A.D..
Thor would start at Floyd Bennet Field in Brooklyn, New York, stopping in many locations such as Newfoundland (Canada), Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands before the final leg of his journey to Norway.
|He first attempted this trip in 1932 in a Bellanca airplane, but he crashed at sea off Canada.
Fortunately, he and his flying mate were rescued by a fishing boat. Undeterred by failure he set out again in 1935 in a
Loening Amphibian plane which he named the Leiv Eiriksson (the Norwegian spelling of Leif Erikson).
His plane, which was not the best, but the only one that he could afford, had an open-air cockpit.
It was an amphibious plane which meant he often landed and took off on water.
This time he had a radio operator aboard as the New York Times wanted to cover his journey. The flight had many challenges. At times there was tremendous fog, occasionally the radio stopped working, and the flight instruments in the cockpit were limited even for that era.
But after four weeks, with 57 hours of flying time covering 13 separate flights, he arrived to a heros welcome in his homeland of Norway. The King of Norway presented him with one of the highest honors given in Norway the Order of St. Olaf.
|Returning to the United States Thor Solberg Sr. decided to pursue another dream of his.
To establish his own airport. In the late-1930s he first purchased farmland in Readington and Branchburg where he could live.
Soon after he bought up several surrounding properties ensuring that he would have room for his airfield.
Work then began clearing and smoothing out the land. Ever resourceful, when government priorities prohibited him from purchasing steel for his airport hangar, Thor purchased a leftover building from the 1939 Worlds Fair in New York City. He then dismantled that building, recycling the steel so that it could be used to build his (first) aircraft hangar.
|In 1940, midway through the building of his airport, he was on his way back to Norway for a
visit when he received word that the Germans had taken over his beloved homeland.
Instead of returning to the occupied country, he came back to the United States.
|By 1941, the airport was ready and Readington Township granted him the right to operate a commercial airport.
A Grand Opening ceremony was held on July 20th, 1941. Over six thousand people attended.
At the time airplanes and airports were still novel and exciting as flying had only been invented 38 years earlier.
Most people had never been on an airplane.
At the opening ceremony many young women were dressed in Norwegian outfits serving refreshments. Dignitaries, politicians, and local celebrities were on hand. Some lucky ones were treated to an airplane ride. Thor Solberg Sr. himself demonstrated a new type of airplane, the Cadet. The highlight of the Grand Opening was the parachuting of a female jumper. Upon landing she would be warmly greeted by the crowd. Many asked for her autograph.
|Unfortunately, the newly opened airport would have to close for security reasons
just five months later when the U.S. was thrust into World War II. Thor Solberg, Sr. and his wife, the late Lorraine P. Solberg,
relocated to Massachusetts where Thor trained over 5000 military pilots without a single accident.
Thus, he played a major role in helping to defeat Nazi Germany. Ensuring that his homeland would once again be free.
|After the war the Solberg Airport functioned as an airfield and private training facility for individuals.
In its early years the airport could accommodate most of the planes that existed at the time.
In 1948, Thor Solberg built a 18,000 square foot bay hangar with additional storage on each side.
Thor Solberg would die in 1967 at the age of 73. After his death his family operated the airport. They continue to do so today.
The airport is categorized as a Priority General Service Airport as defined by the 2006 New Jersey State Airport System Plan. It is designed to accommodate twin engine piston and small business jet aircraft.
|2011 statistics show that around 60 planes takeoff or land each day. Of these two-thirds are airplanes
for hobbyist/training, but one-third is for actual transportation. The airport hangar is home to dozens of privately owned aircraft.
A big part of the airport business is flight training. This is done in two ways.
The first is by flying in a Cessna aircraft provided by Solberg Aviation Co. Inc.
The second way is simulator training in a Precision Flight Control DCX-Max full-motion simulator. (This is provided by My Sim Academy.)
Aircraft maintenance is provided by Adventures Aviation, LLC.
|Besides the Balloon Festival other annual events are held such as the Summer Solstice Celebration, the Santa Claus Fly-in and the Easter Bunny Fly-in.
|In 2005 the airport was in jeopardy. For the Readington Township Committee wanted to use
the power of eminent domain to confiscate the property to guard the local residents from what they saw as
the potential arrival of (loud) commercial jet traffic.
The Solberg family was offered millions of dollars to sell their airport and land. But the airport was their prized jewel. It was not for sale at any price.
After years of legal battles, a judge ruled that the Readington Township Committee was abusing its power and could not use eminent domain to acquire the land. Thus, the Solberg Airport continues to operate allowing many to pursue their dream of learning to fly and offering other flying enthusiasts a place to store their planes and fly out of. And, of course, one summer weekend a year it is a great place for a family outing to view a spectacular site of up to 100 hot air balloons ascending into the sky and to listen to a concert.
|Today the airplane that was used by Thor Solberg Sr. the Leiv Eiriksson is prominently displayed at a
museum in Norway.
Also, at the Floro Airport in Norway there is a statue of Thor Solberg Sr. commemorating his 1935 flight.