Mountain View Voice

News - January 28, 2011

NASA accused of favoritism at Moffett

"AirGoogle" is still Moffett's only private plane operation

by Daniel DeBolt

Four years after the surprise news that Google executives were allowed to base their private planes at Moffett Federal Airfield, there have been not been similar agreements made to use the airfield as officials had promised.

Google CEO and co-founder Larry Page, co-founder Sergey Brin and chairman Eric Schmidt have the special privilege of flying in and out of Moffett Federal Airfield for business and pleasure, including trips to Tahiti, Gavin Newsom's wedding in Montana and the Cannes Film festival. Their growing fleet of aircraft now includes at least one helicopter, two jumbo jets and a fighter jet.

The advocacy group Consumer Watchdog has issued a report criticizing Mountain View-based Google's "cozy" relationship with the federal government, using the controversial deal for "AirGoogle" to use Moffett as the most visible example, and calling out NASA for playing favorites with Google on Moffett's airfield.

The report says that the privilege of landing at Moffett has been denied to others who came willing to pay for it, including a non-profit called Humanitarian Air Logistics (HAL).

"It's a sign of the times," said Paul Asmus, president of Palo Alto-based HAL, in an interview with the Voice. "The wealthy get special treatment and the rest of us don't. I'm fighting to create jobs for people, and these people (NASA and Google) sure weren't helping. I wasted a year and a half" trying to base planes at Moffett. The plans would have been used to transport food and supplies to the world's disaster zones, he said.

Since the responsibility was dumped on them several years ago, NASA Ames has struggled to pay the $7 million a year to run the Moffett airfield, even with the $1.3 million a year from the Google executives pay to park their planes there.

"We will act responsibly and aggressively to meet that shortfall," NASA Ames official Steve Zornetzer told the Mountain View City Council in 2007. "There will be other partnerships."

Favoritism at Moffett?

The deal allowing the "Google jets" at Moffett has been called the "ultimate perk" for Silicon Valley executives, many of whom would be happy to pay for the convenience of a runway in the middle of Silicon Valley.

Asmus knows at least one of them. He had partnered with a billionaire, who he would not name, to try to lease space at Moffett. The idea was that Asmus' company would include the billionaire's planes in humanitarian relief efforts when he wasn't using them. Asmus' non-profit and the billionaire would pay for hangar space, like Google's executives, bolstering Ames' shrinking budget. It appeared to be a win-win, but it was not met with enthusiasm by Ames senior officials, Asmus said. And he believes it was because of Google's influence at Moffett.

"They (Google) really run the place," Asmus said. Perhaps for privacy reasons, "Google didn't want anybody else in there."

Google is probably the most prized "industry partner" at Ames, with agreements for Google to help organize NASA's "terabytes and terabytes of data" and provide Google Earth-like applications for other planets. A one-million-square-foot Google campus is slated for the northwest corner of Ames, but has been on hold for several years. It's understood by many that Google's presence significantly boosts the reputation of Ames as the NASA Center of Silicon Valley.

Asmus said that NASA Ames had a plan for what was essentially to be a mini-airport operation for those with private jets, potentially based in Hangar 211. And he says there was no shortage of inquiries from potential users. A "fixed base operator," would provide the various owners of private jets with fuel, a parking space, maintenance areas and other facilities, much like San Jose Jet Center, Inc. does at San Jose airport, Asmus said. The question now is why that didn't happen, and NASA public affairs did not have an answer by the Voice's press time on Wednesday.

Asmus was given numerous reasons it may not be feasible to base his humanitarian airlift operation at the Ames-controlled Moffett airfield, but none seemed to make sense to him. It seemed a natural fit: the site has been designated as a base for emergency response operations by FEMA.

There was plenty of space: the three largest hangars at Moffett were largely vacant, but all would need expensive work to be suitable to house expensive planes.

It made the most sense to use Hangar 211 and the surrounding tarmac for the private jet facilities, but Asmus believes Google executives, who now have Hangar 211 to themselves, probably opposed that idea.

If you were a Google executive, "would you want Microsoft executives in there, would you want the Oracle CEO in there?" Asmus said. "Would you want to be sharing your private little deal in there with these other people?"

Google's public relations department would not address specific questions about the executive's planes, but attacked the credibility of the Consumer Watchdog report.

"This is just the latest in a long list of press stunts from an organization that admits to working closely with our competitors," a Google spokesperson said of California-based Consumer Watchdog.

NASA officials, speaking off the record, said that there were concerns about Asmus' HAL being a "legitimate" company as it had no airplanes or employee at the time. And Zornetzer has said Ames wants only those tenants that can pay "top dollar."

Nevertheless, Asmus was told to go through various processes of getting support from local cities, even speaking to the Mountain View City Council, which the Google executives never had to do. In the end, Asmus said he's never really gotten an explanation as to why NASA officials apparently dropped his request.

While he still hopes to make an agreement for space at Moffett, Asmus said "there are plenty of other hangars and airports out there. I want to go places where I'm welcome."

The Consumer Watchdog report notes that one other airfield tenant was allowed hangar space at Moffett during Asmus' effort: Airship Ventures. Airship Ventures is a for-profit company that has ties to Sergey Brin's friends and family, and is even partly funded and owned by a subsidiary of Google, according to some reports.

Google lease extended

The Google executives' fleet allowed at Moffett now includes two helicopters and six planes, according to the report, including two Gulfstream jets, smaller Boeing 757 and 767 jumbo jets and a small fighter jet called an Alpha Jet. The operation, called H211 LLC, is said to have 40 employees with security clearance at Ames, where the Google executive's planes are stored and maintained in Hangar 211.

In 2007, a reason stated by NASA officials for allowing the Google executives' planes at Moffett was that it would help with NASA's mission. Special data-gathering equipment would be installed on the planes to collect data for NASA's earth science research. H211's lease allows NASA Ames to refuse any H211 request if it does not follow provisions in its agreement, including the placement of scientific instruments on its planes to "regularly collect earth observations." And according to a 2007 memo by NASA Ames director Pete Worden, requests to lease space on the airfield "must undergo a rigorous review process and every request must demonstrate a relationship to NASA missions."

While that equipment had yet to be used on any of the planes by June of 2010, Consumer Watchdog reports that last spring, Ames quietly extended H211's lease to 2014. It was set to expire in 2011.

Denying allegations from bloggers and community members that it was a toy for the Google executives, NASA official Steve Zornetzer said the Alpha Jet was purchased in 2008 expressly for the atmospheric sensors, which could not be placed on the other planes for technical reasons. Although those sensors have been installed, as of June last year, the Alpha Jet had yet to pass NASA's "Airworthiness and Flight Safety Review."

Nevertheless, a NASA spokesperson said that H211 planes had been used for "observational" research, which means cameras and NASA researchers peering out a plane's windows. H211 planes "have provided support for several of NASA's missions starting in 2008 with the Jules Verne mission, the CASIE mission in 2009, and more recently with AJAX," wrote NASA Ames public affairs director John Yembrick in an email.

Zornetzer said in 2007 that partnerships to use the Moffett airfield would happen only if they meet two criteria. The first is that "top dollar" rates be paid by the user, which he said is the case with Google. The second is that the user must "enhance" NASA's mission by outfitting the planes with scientific equipment to gather data from Earth's atmosphere during flights.

Asmus said he was willing to pay the asking price for space, which would have "easily" come to $3.5 million for his operation of at least 12 planes, some of them large cargo planes. And he said he would be more than happy to install atmospheric sensors on his planes, saying it would be feasible, despite an explanation from NASA that H211 had difficulties in getting the FAA to approve the placement of sensors on most of its planes.

In 2007, Ames said it received $4 million a year from airfield users, $1.3 million of which came from Google's H211. Those numbers haven't changed much. Yembrick said in an e-mail that $4.5 million of the cost is now covered by leases. Additional airfield tenants are a wind power company and a second airship company inside Hangar Two.

E-mail Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

Comments

Posted by Cuesta Parker, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jan 27, 2011 at 6:45 pm

Hilarious. These "Google people" located their HQ in Mountain View and employ thousands of local residents and you are complaining about where they park their jet?


Posted by JustGuessing, a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jan 27, 2011 at 11:36 pm

I'm guessing NASA as the 'FBO' here makes a killing on the fuel for the heavy metal (757, 767), and takes on Google's smaller jets as part of the deal. probably not much interest or incentive for NASA to house a bunch of business jets. It is about $ and PR... Google looks good for PR, buys lots of overpriced fuel, while AirshipVentures is a VERY visible showpiece of new businesses setting up at Moffett. Aid flights as part time work for a predominately corporate jet? What does that buy NASA? To most of the locals, it just represents more noise and sours the relationship with NASA... I mean, seriously, if they actually did fly aid flights on a part time basis, how many days/weeks would it take to exit the news? If it weren't for billboards along 101, most would not even know the ANG rescue wing is based at Moffett.


Posted by BassetHound, a resident of Shoreline West
on Jan 28, 2011 at 12:50 am

Why do Google executives need a fighter jet?


Posted by haha, a resident of another community
on Jan 28, 2011 at 2:16 am

The fighter jet is for Google's upcoming new feature... "search... and destroy" ;)


Posted by Steve, a resident of Jackson Park
on Jan 28, 2011 at 3:08 am

It's not where Google parks their toys that is the question...it's the fact that they're the only ones allowed to do so... read it again.

And as a life-long resident of M.V. of over 50 years I can tell you that most of those "thouands of local residents", are not local at all and weren't Mountain View residents until after Google hired them. Most of the true locals (and many of my friends)lost their jobs, and some their homes, when manufacturing companies left and high-tech software and internet-related outfits replaced them.


Posted by Surprised, a resident of another community
on Jan 28, 2011 at 3:54 am

Just because Google is there in Mountain View, many other good start-ups have setup offices in Mountain View - such as LinkedIn. Its actually good for the City and the business environment there.

Parking a couple of Jets in Space Agency's space shouldn't be such a big issue.


Posted by brazil, a resident of Shoreline West
on Jan 28, 2011 at 9:05 am

The 129 rescue wing pays nasa for rent
nasa makes money
We need the ANG rescue wing as we need Fema and Humanitarian Air
wend the big one hits is in (Earthquake)we need them


Posted by ric, a resident of Monta Loma
on Jan 28, 2011 at 10:31 am

As usual the Voice fails to meet the basic impartiality test and once again fails to accurately report the facts.

I am a NASA employee who has been involved in the effort to retrofit the Google aircraft for science payloads. I DO NOT speak for NASA Ames, however.

1) The "fighter" jet is a two seat TRAINER. It is being modified to carry science payloads that will be used to monitor pollution levels here in the Bay area as well as across California.

2) Modifying a passenger or cargo aircraft with our sensors while meeting stringent FAA standards is a time consuming and expensive effort. In fact, some modifications may preclude the modified aircraft from being used for its original purpose. Mr Asmus is clearly ignorant of this fact or he would not be willing to risk his "fleet" so cavalierly.

3)Basic journalistic footwork on the Voice's part would have uncovered these two facts and certainly would have helped take some of the "yellow" tinge from this article.


Posted by Anne, a resident of Castro City
on Jan 28, 2011 at 10:57 am

This isn't a very convincing article. The whole story is written from the perspective of one disgruntled person who was denied access to use the airfield. That's like asking someone who was fired from the Mountain View Voice what he think of your paper.


Posted by BassetHound, a resident of Shoreline West
on Jan 28, 2011 at 7:50 pm

@ haha, lol.

@ ric, thanks for the info.

Still, I have to wonder, why a fighter jet (even a trainer jet)? Did Sergey pick one up cheap at a garage sale or something?

Wouldn't any similar sized jet be able to carry such a payload? Aren't fighter jets configured to fly fast and maneuver easily? Are those performance characteristics necessary for this purpose?

These are the kinds of questions I ask myself when I read stuff like this. I'm not trying to pick a fight, just really curious. Info like this article can be read as "rich boys and their exotic toys," and understandably raises some eyebrows. But if there are truly valid reasons, I'm all for it.


Posted by HAL, a resident of another community
on Mar 4, 2013 at 12:00 pm

"Modifying a passenger or cargo aircraft with our sensors while meeting stringent FAA standards is a time consuming and expensive effort. In fact, some modifications may preclude the modified aircraft from being used for its original purpose. Mr Asmus is clearly ignorant of this fact or he would not be willing to risk his "fleet" so cavalierly."


The comment above from a NASA employee that Mr. Asmus is clearly "ignorant" about adding scientific equipment to Humanitarian Air Logistics proposed aircraft fails to connect on a couple of points.

First) According to public statements from NASA it was only AFTER NASA signed the lease agreement with H211 that they determined that the Boeing aircraft could not handle the instrumentation and that is why they obtained the Alpha Jet. So why did the experts at NASA not know this before they signed the lease with H211 in the first place -- or were they also ignorant?

Second) HAL was told by a NASA Ames airport official that HAL did not really need to do any scientific testing because humanitarian/disaster aid flights already met the NASA mission requirements to use Moffett.However, HAL was willing to help with that mission.


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