How Google Execs Get Flying Privileges at NASA Ames

NBC Bay Area's Investigative Unit Looks at the relationship between NASA and Google Executives

You know the name Google, but have you heard of H211? It's the private holding company named after a hangar at NASA's Moffett Field. Inside that hangar sits a fleet of airplanes that have been parked there since 2007. So how does Google play into this? The same men who run Google are the principals of H211.

Ken Ambrose is the Executive Director and Vice President of H211. He usually shies away from the spotlight. In fact, this is the first time he allowed TV news cameras in the cockpit as he flew a scientific mission for NASA, measuring ozone and greenhouse gases. But science is just one component of H211's mission here.

In an interview on the tarmac at NASA, NBC Bay Area's Stephen Stock said to Ambrose, "There are some critics who say wait a minute, this is just a well-connected, well heeled, well financed group of people flying their private jets in and out of a government run facility.""I don't think we're doing anything all that unusual. We're willing to do it and we're willing to pay for it," Ambrose answered Stock.

And pay they do. According to an agreement with NASA, H211 shells out $113,365.74 a month. That's a third more rent than they'd have to pay at most other airports. "Why is it so important for H211 to be here, here at NASA," Stock asked Ambrose who answered. "Good question.It's expensive, but it's proximate." 

And that's the rub. Google headquarters sits just blocks away from Moffett Field. "Is it coincidence that the founders are just across the street," Stock asked Ambrose. He answered, "Sure, it's convenient."

By policy, NASA won't let just any private company use government facility such as NASA Ames, but there are exceptions says NASA's Debra Fena. "We welcome anybody who wants to have a place on the NASA research park use the airfield who do two things. Have a NASA alignment to one of our missions, and is financially solvent." In other words, private planes like the fleet owned by H211 and Google's principals parked inside a taxpayer owned hangar must be used for scientific research. How much scientific research isn't specified.

"Some would say well that's just an excuse in order for Google or H211 to park their private planes here," Stock said to Fena. "It's a pretty expensive excuse for them. Our space act agreement is right now aligned with our airborne earth science requirements, data that we couldn't otherwise collect and we are very proud of that alignment. We are very proud of the relationship that has worked thus far since 2007," Fena replied back.

Make no mistake, there is science being done here with the help of these private planes. Dr. Laura Iraci is the science lead for NASA on the project that uses the H211 modified German fighter. She says, "Bad air quality days, good air quality days, having access over and over again to sample the same location is really quite valuable. And it's not something that's often available. Aircraft like this are hard to come by and they are expensive to operate."

"How many of these flights have you flown?" Stock asked Iraci.
"This makes our 42nd scientific flight," she answered.
"Out of how many years?"
"A little more than two."

Ken Ambrose says he's flown more than 80 such flights in that jet. But what about the other planes kept in this hangar? Are they flying scientific missions?

NASA tells us all the H211 planes, 6 of them including a 757, 767, and several gulfstreams, all of them total have flown 52 science flights since the agreement was signed in 2007.  We analyzed flight tracking data (.xlsx file) and found at least 1,039 flights that match H211's profile in and out of Moffett Field. We did the math. That works out to only about one in 20 flights, only 5% of all H211 flights out of Moffet Field are flown on science missions. 

Stock asked Fena, "This isn't just an excuse to allow Google and H211 to fly their planes?"
"No, No," Fena answered. "We'd be in trouble if it were."

Those H211 jets have been spotted all over the world, places like St. Marteen, Italy, Cyprus, Beijing, and Ireland.

Paul Asmus runs a charity named HAL, Humanitarian Air Logistics. He's been trying to use NASA Ames to fly relief missions for his charity out of Moffett Field for years. He says, "They're supposed to treat everybody equally, but in reality it doesn't seem to be that way."

Stock then asked Fena, "Their principals give money that allows them to have this special relationship this seat at the table with NASA. True or not?"
"None," Fena replied.
"Has nothing to do with it?" Stock then asked?
"Financial solvency. Two main criteria outlined in the airfield strategy. NASA mission alignment and financial solvency," Fena said again.

"You see where the criticism comes in a private company using taxpayer supported property to base their operations?" Stock asked H211's Ken Ambrose.
"And paying for it?" Ambrose replied. "It sounds like good government to me."

The initial agreement between H211 and NASA (pdf) expired in June of last year, but was amended to extend the lease until 2014. NASA insists there are no special favors here. NASA says that if any other private company is willing to pay and follow their criteria, they are willing to allow them to fly out of NASA Ames, just like the principals with Google.

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