Hangar One, Moffett airfield up for grabs | May 31, 2013 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |


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News - May 31, 2013

Hangar One, Moffett airfield up for grabs

Use as airport for private business jets is likely under NASA's latest plan

by Daniel DeBolt

The possibility of Moffett Federal Airfield becoming an airport for private business jets is now a real option after a "request for proposals" was issued Tuesday outlining possibilities for leasing the entire 1,055 acre airfield and its historic aircraft hangars.

Up for lease from NASA are Moffett's lengthy runways and massive hangars, where a "fixed base operator" could authorize flights that are not connected to NASA's mission. Such a plan would support a business proposal to finance the re-siding and rehabilitation of Hangar One, said an email from public affairs officer Traci Madison of the General Services Administration. The GSA partnered with NASA on the request for proposals (RFP).

The request for proposals was part of a compromise pushed by Congresswoman Anna Eshoo after years of complaints from NASA about the cost of airfield maintenance and operations and community outcry over the preservation of historic Hangar One. The 200-foot-tall former airship hangar was once slated for demolition because of toxics in its siding is a bare frame, and was stripped of its siding after a toxic cleanup by the Navy.

Companies will have a chance to bid on leasing and restoring Hangar One and its 16 acres, or leasing both Hangar One and the airfield, including Hangars Two and Three and the nearby NASA golf course. Hangar One must be restored under both options, the RFP says.

Preservationists concerned

Preservationists may be less enthusiastic about the possibility of using Hangar One as a billboard, a possibility raised by former NASA Ames deputy director William Berry that doesn't appear to be addressed in the RFP, or the renaming of Moffett Field, which the RFP allows in order to better market the airfield.

Hangar One preservationist Bob Moss expressed concern.

"Restoration and use of Hangar One takes a clear backseat in this RFP which probably puts anyone like Google, primarily interested in re-skinning and using Hangar One, at a disadvantage," said Moss in an email. Moss, a Moffett Field Restoration Advisory Board member, was referring to interest from Google's founders in leasing Hangar One.

"Taking over operation of the entire airfield plus Hangar One requires someone familiar with maintaining and operating a flight facility, plus some unusual requirements like historical preservation, wildlife protection, renting land (part of the Sunnyvale golf course) and maybe facilities (any of the hangars or other buildings) plus paying rent to NASA. Also they would have to hook up utilities, co-operate with toxic cleanups, allow government use of the airfield, enforce types of aircraft allowed to use the airfield, and more."

Flight restrictions

The RFP includes a cap of 17,000 flights a year from the airfield under a new operator. There are fewer than 2,000 a year now. Moffett at its peak had over 100,000 flights annually in the 1980s, according to Berry. Many airplanes will be excluded because the RFP bars the sale of aviation gas used by propeller driven planes, allowing only jet fuel, the sort used by business jets popular with Silicon Valley's elite.

NASA officials also have said they do not want to revisit proposals for air cargo flights at Moffett.

"It's a sign they aren't going to allow general aviation," at Moffett, Berry said of the fuel restriction. He said he thinks it's meant to send a message to the cities of Sunnyvale and Mountain View, where residents have vocally opposed increased flights and noise from Moffett.

Golf course

An airfield operator would also have to lease the NASA golf course on the northeast corner of the airfield, possibly partnering with its current operators, the NASA Exchange. GSA officials declined to comment on whether the golf course was a money-loser for NASA, like the airfield has been. NASA's goal is to eliminate the expense of maintaining and operating the airfield, once said to be $7 million a year.

The golf course could also potentially be redeveloped, Berry said, if the 11-year-old Environmental Impact Study for NASA Ames were revised. One challenge is that the military keeps a pair of 10-acre munitions storage facilities in the middle of the course, according to the RFP.

"If you play golf out there, there are real hazards," Berry joked.

Who will bid?

The RFP also outlines an area where 90,000 square feet of new development would be allowed between the south end of Hangar One and the airfield's flight control tower, a likely area for a business jet facility.

Who will bid on Hangar One and the airfield remains to be seen, but Google founders' H211 LLC has expressed interest in the past. The company operates a fleet of jumbo jets, business jets and helicopters out of Moffett for Google's founders under an agreement with NASA to share the use of the Google fleet for research. Google's founders are also moving forward on the development of a similar private jet facility at San Jose Airport after it was approved by the San Jose City Council last month.

It's been suggested that the city of Mountain View could make a proposal, Berry said.

"It's been a thought amongst certain people that the city should try to get control of that," said council member Jac Siegel, who has expressed interest in such a move in the past but declined to comment further until city officials could study the RFP.

Financial challenge

Bidders may have a real challenge making a sound business plan, Berry said. It is unclear in the RFP how long a Hangar One tenant would have to recoup the $30 million-plus cost of re-siding the hangar. No lease term is specified.

"Government leases can be up to 99 years," Berry said. "I would guess it would take a few decades, 25-50 years, before somebody could make money on it. Anybody who wants to come in and do something with the airfield has to spend a lot of money up front and immediately start carrying all the bills for the runways. So I think that's going to be challenge, I can't imagine how someone could make money operating that with only 17,000 take-offs and landings a year. It's not enough to pay the cost of the airfield."

The number of flights allowed could go up if the NASA Ames Environmental Impact study is revised, a real possibility since it is 11 years old, Berry said. It allows 24,268 flights a year at Moffett, though less than 2,000 occur today, NASA officials say. The RFP promises 8,000 flights a year to NASA and the Air National Guard, which has the 129th Air Rescue Wing stationed at Moffett.

The RFP does not specify requirements to allow public uses or benefits from the lease, such as the use of all or part of Hangar One for a major air and space museum or for large events, as advocates of the historic building have expressed interest in for years.

"Whoever comes forward to recover Hangar One should support putting something like the (Earth, Air and Space Center) in it, so there's public benefit," Berry said, referring to the museum proposed by several Hangar One preservationists who have formed the Air and Space West Foundation to create a museum in part of Hangar One.

There are also several possibilities that may be proposed for using a new material to re-side Hangar One. Some preservationists support the use of a semi-translucent Teflon-coated fiberglass (PTFE) covering similar to the canopy at Shoreline Amphitheater.

"Personally I'd love to see it recovered with PTFE," Berry said. "The idea of it glowing at night when lit up, it would be quite an attraction from Highway 101."

To download the RFP, visit historicproperties.arc.nasa.gov/hangar1

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com


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