Google Airlines is out of gas

The internet is all abuzz with the fact that US Sen. Charles Grassley (R, Iowa) is seeking an audit of the arrangements between NASA, the Pentagon, and Google.

H211 LLC , a holding company, is apparently the entity that Google executives formed to handle their dealings with NASA on their fleet of aircraft. H211 LLC signed an agreement with NASA to lease space at Ames Research – Moffett Air Park, located in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. for $1.3 million per year to fly research missions for NASA at their own expense.

At the time, that sounded like an excellent quid pro quo. Additional H211 LLC would obtain a Dornier Alpha fighter jet which would be modified to carry specialty NASA test gear. I wrote about this for Mike Magee’s ITExaminer in 2008. At that time there were grumblings by the local residents concerned that additional flights would mean additional noise.

In the 1960s I worked on US Army aircraft, helicopters, and fixed wing, that were located at Moffett Field in Hanger One. At that time, Moffett Field was a US Navy facility. Hanger One was built during the Great Depression to handle the large dirigibles (my father was in charge of the roofing for the hanger). For nine months last year, workers rappelled down the outside of Hangar One to remove sections of contaminated steel and redwood siding. Now, it is a steel skeleton within sight of Highway 101 – Bay Shore Freeway. Thus, I know a great deal about Moffett Airpark, as it is now known.

In 2007, Google said that similar to the other H211 LLC/Google planes offered to NASA, the Dornier Alpha Jet was being outfitted with scientific instruments for NASA missions, including instruments that the other planes could not carry. Matt Furman, then an official Google spokesperson, said that because of the type of aircraft we are talking about, NASA now has the ability to do even more than they could before.

One of the reasons Google purchased the Dornier Alpha fighter jet is because CEO Eric Schmidt has a pilot’s license and cockpit experience in high-performance jet aircraft. The other reason is the rest of their aircraft, including a Boeing 767, Boeing 757, and four Gulfstream V’s along with two helicopters, would have to be recertified by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration ) if NASA test gear were installed.

What has Sen. Grassley’s knickers in a knot is Google’s been buying jet aviation fuel at government prices. This allowed the Google aircraft to travel on sharply discounted jet fuel bought from the Pentagon at NASA’s Ames-Moffett facility. Moffett Airpark has a government contract with the jet fuel supplier who is the only aviation fuel supplier allowed on Moffett Airpark for security reasons.

Kenneth Ambrose, an executive with H211, said the company bought “the only fuel available at Moffett” and pays “full retail for hangar space that includes none of the ground support typically included in business aircraft hangers”. He added that the total value of H211’s payments and scientific of flights means NASA and taxpayers are “$2 million a year to the good for our presence at Moffett”.

Flight records from the FAA suggest that the vast bulk of the flights by the Google executives’ fleet have been for non-NASA purposes.

The Google/H211 LLC aircraft departed from Moffett a total of 710 times since 2007, FAA records show. The most frequent destinations were Los Angeles and New York, but the planes also flew 20 times to the Caribbean island of Tortola; 17 to Hawaii; 16 to Nantucket, Massachusetts; 15 to Tahiti and 4 of the jet aircraft, including the 767, took off from Moffett for Croatia this past July. The departures were just before the wedding in Croatia of Google CEO Larry Page’s brother-in-law, held in a medieval hill town near the Adriatic coast. Mr. Page attended as a groomsman and was photographed wearing his pet project eyeglass-like Google Glass computer at the altar.

Meanwhile, as of last year, NASA told Sen. Grassley that the Google craft had flown a total of 155 missions for it. All but 11 of those, however, had been flown by the small Alpha jet, a fuel sipper compared with the big aircraft.

What started Sen. Grassley on his investigation was a pencil neck Pentagon Col. who overheard a conversation from the private aircraft owners association complaining about Google’s special treatment. Sen. Grassley is asking the question: “are some executives getting a special deal on fuel,” and if so, is it available to other businesses? He said the setup raises concerns about the government’s role as a “fair broker with business is an responsible steward of tax dollars”.

H211 LLC has bought 2.3 million gallons of JP4 jet fuel since early 2009, according to Pentagon records viewed by the Wall Street Journal, paying an average $3.19 per gallon to $3.33 per gallon. Aviation JP4 jet fuel in the San Francisco Bay Area airports average just under $4.50 per gallon – similar to Grade 2 vehicle diesel fuel which JP4 is derived from.

Obviously it is great fun to pick on billionaires, especially when they are affiliated with Google. However, when you look at all the facts, there were not a lot of options for fueling the jet aircraft.

The only option is to land at a different airport, refuel the aircraft, and then land at Moffett Airpark, with a jet aircraft that has a full load of fuel rather than near empty. That is a safety hazard based on my experience working on jet helicopters and jet fixed wing aircraft.

Sen. Grassley also wants to have the passenger manifests of every flight by Google/H2 11 LLC aircraft since 2007.