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From Silicon Valley to space: a new frontier – Midland Reporter

Posted: Sunday, September 28, 2014 7:12 pm

Updated: 7:46 pm, Sun Sep 28, 2014.

From Silicon Valley to space: a new frontier

By Eric Berger | Houston Chronicle

Midland Reporter-Telegram


MOJAVE, Calif. – The old airplane hangar doors creaked, and then slowly began to roll open as Jeremy Voigt leaned into them. Stepping outside, he emerged into blazing sunshine.

Here, in California’s Mojave desert, he’s far from the home of the astronauts, Johnson Space Center. Yet Voigt, who has dreamed of reaching the stars his entire life, may be a lot closer to space than most NASA astronauts.

”Start it slow, and we’ll work our way up,” Voigt, 27, says.

He and a small team of engineers have braved the late summer heat to test a new fuel pump for a rocket engine built by XCOR, where Voigt works. The pump is crucial: too much fuel and the engine could melt. Too little and it won’t reach space. The big concern today is making sure it doesn’t leak.

Voigt has chosen to forge his own path to space, an ethos embodied by “new space” companies like XCOR, which have tired of waiting for NASA to unlock the final frontier.

The new space movement burns hottest in the Mojave desert, where long ago Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier above its dry, desolate expanses and early NASA astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, flew the famed X-15 to the edge of space.

Modern new space companies have set a bold goal: to open space to the floodgates of humanity. To survive, they feel, humanity must become a multi-planet species. They want to colonize the moon, Mars and beyond. And they believe they can do this by slashing the cost of spaceflight with smaller, reusable spacecraft.

For decades new space has been science fiction, inspired by such authors as Robert Heinlein, and as tangible as words on a page. But that may finally be changing. There is innovation at places like XCOR and, increasingly, money.

A generation of tech moguls who made their fortunes during the dotcom boom – like PayPal’s Elon Musk, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft’s Paul Allen – have come to new space. They’re importing the culture of Silicon Valley and backing their ventures with deep pockets.

For half a century, of course, NASA has led America’s forays into space. Its leaders view new space both warily, as a competitor, and hopefully, as a partner. Last week NASA chose two companies to bring its astronauts to the International Space Station. It gave Boeing, a long-time, traditional contractor, $4.2 billion. It gave considerably less, $2.6 billion, to SpaceX, the biggest of the new space kids on the block.

Regardless of NASA’s support for new space, however, it’s no longer the gatekeeper. In the minds of new space NASA had its chance in the 1970s, when building the space shuttle, to lower the cost of access to space.

”We’re there again right now, where we were in the ’70s,” said Rick Tumlinson, an early acolyte of the new space movement who has founded a handful of companies, including the spacesuit maker, Orbital Outfitters.

The space shuttle, although it achieved much, proved far more expensive to fly than initial estimates.

”It was the Wizard of Oz,” Tumlinson said. “There was nobody behind the curtain. But now it’s moved outside the government. And frankly, it kind of saddens me, because no one is betting on the government to deliver the future any more.”

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XCOR Aerospace

Taylor Stix works on a weld in the XCOR Aerospace shop at the Mojave Air and Space Port on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, in Mojave, Calif. ( Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle )
Smiley N. Pool

Inspired by sci-fi, NASA

New space traces its roots to the heady days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and Capt. James T. Kirk explored the universe for Star Fleet.

An avid reader of science fiction, Tumlinson was muddling through Stephen F. Austin University, in the Piney Woods of East Texas, when he happened to meet Gene Roddenberry, the creator of “Star Trek.”

Stay with your dream, Roddenberry advised, and never give up.

Decades later, Tumlinson is something of a godfather of new space, both entrepreneur and evangelist, preaching the gospel of new space icons like Musk and Bezos, whom he calls the dotcom cavalry.

”These guys grew up watching Apollo and ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Wars,’ ” Tumlinson said. “Think about that time. We’d been to the moon, so we could do anything.”

The tech moguls absorbed all of this as kids, says Tumlinson. “They became the geeks, and they founded the dotcoms, but inside of them there’s still that little kid watching ‘Star Trek’ that has that dream.”

XCOR’s Jeremy Voigt has that dream, too. But as a twentysomething, he grew up watching “Star Trek: The Next Generation” instead of the original series.

Two years ago he’d been just another college kid, following the “astronaut blueprint” by working toward a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from Purdue University, where Armstrong studied. Voigt would get the requisite credentials: a doctorate, some patents and publications, and then apply to NASA to become an astronaut.

But on the advice of a professor, he visited XCOR’s cramped World War II-era hangar, with its vintage wooden rafters, in Mojave. He met the company’s magnetic founder, Jeff Greason, and was offered an internship in 2012. A full-time job followed.

”I walked into XCOR, and after my first week I didn’t see a need to do all of that stuff,” he explained. “This place has everything I’ve ever wanted in a job. I get to fire rocket engines. I get to do hands-on, critical stuff for the vehicle. And oh yeah, I get to go into space.”

In mid-August his boss, Greason, traveled from the California desert to Midland, a West Texas oil town that’s nearly as arid. The next morning Greason, tall, bespectacled and balding, picked up a ceremonial sledgehammer. He and a handful of other Midland officials knocked out a wall at a hangar at the city’s airport – purely cheeseball stuff, like groundbreakings with mayors and gold-plated shovels.

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XCOR Aerospace

A commercial flight takes off over the XCOR hangar at the Midland International Airport on Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, in Midland. The XCOR hangar will be renovated and become XCOR’s Commercial Spaceflight Research and Development Center Headquarters. ( Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle )
Smiley N. Pool

From Mojave to Midland

Although known for oil and being the boyhood home of George W. Bush, Midland decided during the last energy crunch to diversify its economy. It chose space, and two years ago struck a $10 million deal to lure XCOR from Mojave. Next year, after this hangar is renovated, the company will move into considerably larger digs in Texas. Greason likes the open air space above Midland for flight tests, and the state’s less restrictive regulatory environment.

Less known than Musk or Bezos among the public at large, and certainly far less wealthy, within the new space community Greason is no less a celebrity.

A gifted engineer, he attended the California Institute of Technology and had the fortune to take a class taught by the legendary physicist Richard Feynman. Greason was at Caltech when the space shuttle Challenger broke apart in 1986. Feynman served on the panel investigating the disaster. Feynman savaged NASA in his findings, saying the agency’s “safety culture” allowed management to overlook glaring problems and fly the shuttle anyway.

For a young electrical engineer learning how to find and fix problems in complex systems, NASA’s failure mystified Greason.

”It really took away for me the belief that NASA was a superhuman organization of godlike beings,” Greason said. “That doesn’t make them not a special place. But it’s part of the philosophical evolution I made to thinking: Maybe other people can do spaceflight.”

Upon graduating, Greason didn’t think “other people” included him. He figured there would eventually be lots of electrical things to work on in space so he took a job with Intel, where he helped invent the Pentium processor.

But the space bug never left, and in the early 1990s he stumbled onto an Internet group discussing space. That led to attending his first Space Access Conference, a hotbed of new space enthusiasts, in 1994.

”I was totally blown away,” Greason recalled. “I said, ‘That’s it. That’s what I want to do.’ I really care if we get off this planet, and I don’t really care if Intel has 85 or 90 percent market share next year.”

He ordered $2,000 worth of rocketry books and read spacecraft journals. At the same space conference in 1997, a businessman named Gary Hudson looking for technical managers pulled Greason aside. Would he be interested in managing propulsion for Rotary Rocket, a company building a reusable orbital spacecraft?

Would he ever. Greason moved his family to Mojave. But like a lot of startups, Rotary Rocket soon ran out of money.

”We all got laid off together,” he recalls of Rotary Rocket’s end in 1999.

But the team didn’t want to quit. They told Greason they would continue working for free until the company’s next technical milestone.

”I was very moved by that, and I went and told Gary, and he turned me down,” Greason continued. “He told me he wasn’t interested in developing rocket engines any more. So I was not very happy to hear that, and I had to go back and tell the crew the news. I went back to my office and continued packing up. And after about an hour I got called in by a slightly smaller group.”

At this point Greason stops speaking, and when he starts again his voice is soft, breaking up. Jeff Greason, one of the most brilliant rocket scientists in the world, is trying very hard not to cry.

”They said, ‘OK we’re still not ready to quit, so what are you going to do, boss?’ I said I didn’t know, but if they all felt that way about it I would see what we could do.”

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XCOR Aerospace

XCOR CEO Jeff Greason and COO Andrew Nelson join Midland officials for a “wall breaking” ceremony at Midland International Airport on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Midland. The event marked the start of construction on renovations on the XCOR hangar that will become XCOR’s Commercial Spaceflight Research and Development Center Headquarters. ( Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle )
Smiley N. Pool

Small companies, big plans

What he did was found XCOR and, for about a year, he and his small team used credit cards to buy parts. Eventually some small investors came on board.

Fifteen years later, shades of those difficult early days remain. In the corner of the company’s conference room are four well-worn seats pulled from some old aircraft. Back when furniture was at a premium for the struggling company, Greason explains, the chairs were plucked from the boneyard, a final resting place for more than 1,000 abandoned aircraft on the north side of the Mojave flight line.

Since the company’s beginning, XCOR has built a succession of rocket ships culminating with the Lynx, which is designed to reach space five minutes after taking off from a runway, provide a few minutes of weightlessness, and then glide back to Earth.

Just outside XCOR’s conference room is the body of the 30-foot winged spacecraft. Engineers are working on it. Next to it, on the other side of the hangar, is the rocket, propelled by four main engines. More tinkering.

About 70 people now work for XCOR, up from two dozen a few years ago, as they get closer to the first flight in a year or two. Three-time NASA astronaut Rick Searfoss will be in the cockpit.

It may sound like a simple sub-orbital space plane, but the magic of the Lynx is that it would require almost no maintenance between flights, and could fly to space four times a day. Like a car, you put in gas and go. Its fuel cost is proprietary, but the liquid oxygen burned will probably cost a few thousand dollars per flight.

Larger companies with wealthier, more famous backers may get more publicity, but it is smaller ones like XCOR that embody the new space movement.

Greason envisions several versions of the Lynx, extending to orbital spaceflights and beyond. Most nights, at his home in the mountains above Mojave, he sits in his library until about midnight, thinking and planning about how to go cheaper, faster and farther.

He may not succeed, of course. The landscape of new space is littered with failures.

When workers at XCOR, Scaled Composites, Stratolaunch, Virgin Galactic or any of the dozen new space companies at Mojave drive to their offices, it’s impossible to miss the symbolism at the heart of the spaceport.

There, a prototype of Rotary Rocket’s spacecraft towers 62 feet above Legacy Park. Asked why he advises XCOR interns never to touch the spacecraft, Greason laughs heartily.

”That’s a little bit of a local superstition,” he said. “That everybody who has touched that thing has lost money.”

It remains to be seen whether the dotcom cavalry, each with a different approach to cheaply reaching orbit, can succeed in space financially as they did in Silicon Valley.

Musk put much of the fortune he earned from the sale of PayPal into SpaceX, with the goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2020s. Bezos has spent half a billion dollars on Blue Origin, a secretive venture working on reusable launch vehicles that tests its rockets in West Texas.

”If you really want to make it so that anybody can go into space, you have to increase the safety and decrease the cost,” Bezos told Wired three years ago. Microsoft’s Allen backed SpaceShipOne, which made the first private flight to space a decade ago from Mojave, and has invested in Stratolaunch Systems, which is building a massive carrier aircraft to boost rockets into space.

Keeping up with SpaceX

When the new space visionaries were kids, America seemed on the cusp of opening the high frontier with the space shuttle.

In 1969 George Mueller, NASA’s chief of manned spaceflight, said the shuttle would slash the cost of flying stuff to orbit down to $25 a pound. Regular folks could buy tickets into space. But the shuttle didn’t come close – over the course of three decades and 135 flights, the shuttle cost closer to $25,000 a pound.

Bob Thompson, who managed the space shuttle program from its inception, in 1970, to its first flight, in 1981, knows why.

Long retired, but still passionate about the shuttle and sensitive to its critics, Thompson’s home office in Clear Lake is filled with awards and shuttle models. NASA, he said, asked him to advance the U.S. human spaceflight capability. The versatile shuttle did that. He was never asked to build a low-cost launch vehicle.

”George Mueller was trying to get the Congress to give us money to build what we wanted to build,” Thompson said. “He was trying to say the shuttle could do everything, answering criticism coming out of the Senate.”

Of the new space companies seeking to do what NASA didn’t four decades ago, none has been more successful or celebrated than SpaceX.

For good reason. There’s Musk, the celebrity CEO. There’s the company’s stupendous rocket launches. And there are the achievements. In December 2010, SpaceX flew the first privately developed spacecraft, Dragon, into orbit and safely home. Two years ago it became the first private company to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Until then, only government agencies, like NASA, had achieved this.

Beneath the company’s glossy public image there’s a steelier side.

”They’re demanding,” says Gilberto Salinas, a Brownsville economic developer who helped persuade SpaceX to build a spaceport on Boca Chica beach, in South Texas. “We’ve learned that just keeping up with them is a task.”

The ruthlessness of Musk and SpaceX bend toward a singular goal, to drive down the cost of access to space. And it’s working.

NASA paid SpaceX a relative pittance, less than $400 million, for the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft that’s now supplying the space station. NASA estimated it would have cost the space agency four to 10 times as much to do the same thing. Musk is also building a massive rocket, the Falcon 9 Heavy, which could fly three years earlier than the heavy lift rocket NASA is building, the Space Launch System, and may deliver cargo to orbit at a tenth of the cost.

For Musk, however, these are just baby steps. He, too, wants to build reusable rockets.

”What SpaceX has done so far is evolutionary, but not revolutionary,” he said earlier this year.

NASA has nurtured SpaceX to date, with contracts, but the relationship has grown increasingly complex as SpaceX, as well as new space, have emerged as competitors.

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XCOR Aerospace

Drawings on a dry erase board in the XCOR Aerospace shop at the Mojave Air and Space Port on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, in Mojave, Calif. ( Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle )
Smiley N. Pool

Demanding workloads

The space agency feels that new space doesn’t give it enough credit. Without seed funding from NASA, they say, SpaceX wouldn’t exist. Without the space station, which NASA built and maintains at great expense, there’s no market for the companies that fly spacecraft there. New space misses deadlines, too. And so, in years to come, NASA firmly believes it will remain the leader on the road to Mars.

”As we move farther out, we’re going to need someone to fill in behind us,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in an interview earlier this year. “It’s like a supply line. If the military goes somewhere, they go out and fight, win land, and put in a fuel line. Then right behind there’s somebody like a Brown Root. And they put in commercial infrastructure.”

But NASA hasn’t flown beyond Earth’s orbit in four decades, and the space agency has no clear direction. How much longer will the children of Apollo, Heinlein and Roddenberry wait for their colonies in space?

There’s a joke that at NASA five people are doing one job, but at SpaceX one person does five jobs. Like their Silicon Valley antecedents, new space employees work long hours. SpaceX was sued in August after a few hundred layoffs as plaintiffs alleged the company violated California labor laws and forced them to work “off the clock” hours. Yet most new space employees revel in demanding workloads.

Thousands of little things

This spring at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA and SpaceX staged a ceremony as the company took control of the historic launch pad from which Apollo 11 rocketed to the moon. SpaceX plans to launch its Falcon 9 Heavy, which could compete with NASA’s own big rocket, from here. Officials made nice during the ceremony, but behind the scene tensions bubbled up.

The new guys, according to NASA workers, acted like they owned the place. They were “rude, arrogant egotistical smartasses,” one NASA old-timer said. “I don’t mind young people, which they all were. But they just acted like they had it all figured out, like they just have the world by the tail.”

The kids in Mojave are still trying to figure it out.

Voigt and his young XCOR companions had toiled into the evening. They had wired the pump into the guts of the rocket, and for hours they had tested. Still the pump leaked.

While this is but a single pump, it’s emblematic of the challenge facing new space. For a rocket to fly, thousands of little things must go just right. For space to be affordable, these little things must go right thousands of times between checkups. New space can’t afford the hundreds of engineers and technicians who spent months checking out the space shuttle between flights.

Finally, Voigt called a halt.

”I think we’re just wasting time,” he said, sighing.

As the sun fell behind the Tehachapi Mountains, the engineers and technicians packed up their gear and slowly rolled the rocket back into the hangar. Another long day. Another late night. But they would be back in the morning. There are always problems with new hardware. No test is a failure. You learn. You apply.

And if you’re working for Jeff Greason, you don’t give up.

”This is not optional for me,” Greason said, gazing toward the corner of the conference room with the old aircraft seats. “I believe humanity opening up a frontier in space is important. I think if we want to have a future, we have to do it. As soon as I see other people doing it in a way that I think will work, I can stop.

”So far, I don’t. So I can’t.”

Spaceport in the making

© 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Sunday, September 28, 2014 7:12 pm.

Updated: 7:46 pm.

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Local youths take to skies with Elyria Flyro Gyro event

The wild blue yonder was the playground for at least 30 youths who came out for the Flyro Gyro event Sept. 27 at the Elyria Airport, 10800 Middle Ave., Carlisle Township. The Discover Aviation Center and Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 1252 provide Young Eagle free rides for youths age 8 to 17, and a lunch with hot dogs and gyros upon their return.

I dont know if you could have a prettier day to fly, said Don Johnson of LaGrange. He waited on the ground with his grandson, Flynn Yoho, 3, while his other grandson, Zander Yoho, 8, took a ride in pilot Paul Hanchecks 1946 Luscombe 8-E airplane. The plane was marketed as the first all-metal civilian aircraft built after World War II.

The goal is just to make people interested in aviation because our numbers are dwindling, said Hancheck, a Cleveland resident who flies out of Columbia Station.
We just want to show people airplanes are fun and play safe and can be good for the community, he said.

Flying can be an expensive hobby and around the country, smaller airports are closing as housing subdivisions and stores develop around them, Hancheck said.

With the Young Eagles program we want to teach people at a young age to enjoy aviation and not mind airplanes taking off and landing, Hancheck said. He added he has been taking up youth passengers for three to four years.
Most of us are always looking for excuses to fly, Hancheck said. This is the best excuse I can think of.

On the ground, the pilots like to point out parts of the plane and review their pre-flight actions, such as checking the weather, running the engine and operating the radio with ground control stations.

Weather conditions were sunny and seemed ideal for the 20-minute tour around northern Lorain County, with sights including the power plant at Avon Lake and the port of Lorain. The pilots and passengers also reported seeing downtown Cleveland and planes taking off from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.

Pilot Bryce York of Sandusky earned his pilots license in June and he was participating in the Elyria event for the first time.

When he was 18, York said he got a ride in a small plane ride and was hooked. Years later, he is co-owner of the four-seat Cessna 172 plane used by the Discover Aviation Center at the Lorain County Regional Airport.

The same thing can happen with these kids, York said. They go up and they get a taste of it and enjoyment of it and get the bug.

York piloted the Cessna for the Lambert brothers of Vermilion. David, 12, Seth, 10, and Jonah 9, got to ride while their brother Nathan, 5, and parents Mike and Angel Lambert waited at the airport.

The brothers agreed the ride was awesome and so cool.
So I take it you liked it? Mike Lambert said.

Yeah, the boys answered.

They never stopped talking the whole time so you know they were having fun, York said. Everyone enjoyed it, everyone had a great time. Smiles all the way around.

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Norfolk sea level rise takes shine off waterfront homes – The Virginian


Soon after Mary-Carson and Josh Stiff got married last year, they began talking about buying a house.

Josh, 30, wanted to live in Norfolk to be near his law office. Mary-Carson, 28, wasn’t so sure. Sea level rise and the chronic flooding that plagues the city worried her.

“My concern was, it might not be a wise place to invest in general,” she said.

Her worry was grounded in her work. A consultant at the College of William Mary Law School’s Virginia Coastal Policy Clinic who now works part time as policy director for the local environmental group Wetlands Watch, Mary-Carson has been immersed in sea level rise policy work for months. She’s well-acquainted with the piles of studies, reports and charts that show Norfolk is one of the country’s most vulnerable cities.

Her determination to avoid living near the water surprised her a little. She grew up on a lake in Suffolk, a proud, water-loving Tidewater native.

“I absolutely thought my dream home would be on the water,” she said. “But knowing what I now know, my entire perception has changed. I think everyone in Hampton Roads has rose-colored glasses when it comes to a picturesque home on the waterfront, with a dock and a boat and a kayak. That life is sweet and has a place in my heart, but it’s no longer what I dream about.”

The newlyweds forged a compromise. They would search for a home in Norfolk to be near Josh’s office. But it could not be in a flood plain, susceptible to rising seas, storm surge and escalating flood insurance prices.

Their decision is one glimpse into the changing dynamics of coastal real estate. A growing awareness of sea level rise and flooding, coupled with rising flood insurance premiums as the federal government phases out subsidies, has the potential to reshape segments of the Hampton Roads market.


No one, of course, knows exactly what the future holds, but there’s consensus on the broad strokes.

Scott Hunter, president of the Virginia Beach insurance company Comparity, which does flood insurance work, said, “I would have to believe it will take longer to sell these properties, and certainly there will be a downward pressure on prices.”

For some, like the Stiffs, waterfront property has simply lost its appeal.

“Previously, people looked at the school district or maybe property taxes, but now they’re also asking about flood insurance,” said Michael McShane, an Old Dominion University professor specializing in risk management and flood insurance. “It’s starting to worry people. It has become a new factor.”

Committed to living in Norfolk, the Stiffs set out on a mission to find a home they loved away from the threat of water, a surprisingly challenging quest.

Real estate agent Kathy Heaton found herself on the flip side of the growing concern, and perhaps at the forefront of a new trend.

For months, the Nancy Chandler and Associates agent had been trying to sell a home in the desirable Norfolk neighborhood of Larchmont. The problem: Like many homes in that area, it’s in a high-risk flood plain. Flood insurance could run up to $3,500 based on estimates she’s seen.

That would add almost $300 to a monthly mortgage, an amount many buyers Heaton has encountered would rather put into the cost of a home.

Regular homeowners insurance does not cover flooding. Homes in the flood plains with mortgages are required by lenders to have insurance from the subsidized National Flood Insurance Program. It is struggling financially, and reforms are steadily increasing rates – about 18 percent a year – until they represent coverage of the true cost of the risk.

The specter of flood insurance is making the Larchmont home, assessed at around $270,000, nearly impossible to sell.

“We’ve probably had 35 showings, and everybody has walked out because of the flood insurance,” Heaton said.

The home is not unique in a city penetrated by tidal creeks with some of the highest rates of sea level rise in the country, a combination of sinking land and rising water.


About a quarter of properties in Norfolk – just over 17,000 – are in high-risk flood plains, with values totaling 34 percent of the tax base, according to city figures.

The number of homes that repeatedly flood, so-called “repetitive loss” properties, has increased from about 200 in 2002 to almost 900 today, said Lenny Newcomb, the city’s zoning administrator.

Owners of these homes might be eligible for federal money to raise them above flood levels, but that money is competitive, and the option is not practical for all homes.

Minor flooding, partly driven by sea level rise, has also been increasing around Norfolk, according to studies published this year by Old Dominion University scientists and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Larchmont home has been so difficult for Heaton to sell that a creative solution is in the works that could be a model for flood zone homes in the future.

The idea is to make changes to the home to reduce flood damage and drive down insurance rates.

In this case, contractors would move the furnace, hot water heater and electric panel from the basement of the 1920s home into a newly created utility room in the upper part of the house. The basement would then be filled in, and vents would be added to allow floodwater to move in and then out from under the house.

The work would cost about $15,000, said Mike Vernon, director of business development for Flood Mitigation Hampton Roads, a new company that would do the job.

The seller and buyer would figure out how to split the cost, with the buyer’s share getting wrapped into the mortgage as a type of renovation loan, he said.

An insurance agent has estimated the improvements would lower flood insurance $392 a year, Heaton said.

“The seller is now armed to negotiate with a buyer in a way that would allow them to move the house,” Vernon said.

His prediction for the long term: “The National Flood Insurance Program is going to mitigate America. The houses in the flood plains are either going to be washed away, mitigated, or they’re going to be demolished.”

Mary-Carson Stiff spent most of the year searching for homes that stayed clear of flood zone dilemmas. It took some work.

“You’re basically on your own,” she said.


In Virginia, the burden of discovering potential problems is on the buyer, with a few exceptions. For example, sellers must disclose if a home is in an airplane noise zone or has defective drywall or has ever been used to manufacture meth. But they don’t need to disclose if a home is in the flood zone or has been damaged in a flood; flood insurance claims for a home are not available to a potential buyer.

The lack of information has led to deals falling through at the last minute, officials say, as buyers discover they need flood insurance that would dramatically increase mortgage payments.

“The regular homeowner, Joe Blow, might say, ‘Hey, I can afford a $1,200 mortgage,’ so he negotiates and gets the price down, and then he discovers he’s also going to have a $300 a month flood insurance bill, and that pushes the cost over his limit, and he has to walk away,” said Matthew Wall, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management’s hazard mitigation officer. “It’s not good for anyone.”

Wall and others have suggested Virginia change its rules so potential buyers are informed early of a home’s flood plain status.

A panel advising the General Assembly on sea level rise and flooding issues is recommending that legislators consider requiring sellers to disclose past flood damage. This would require the Assembly to modify the Virginia Residential Property Disclosure Act.

Buyers may be on their own, but there are public resources to help.

For example, the first thing Mary-Carson Stiff did with each home suggested by her real estate agent was plug the address into a city website that includes, among other things, whether a home is in a flood zone. It’s called Norfolk Address Information Resource.

“Every single house, I plug into Norfolk AIR,” she said. “I don’t even look at the pictures because I don’t want to be disappointed.”

She looked at detailed maps developed by NOAA and Climate Central, a nonprofit that focuses on climate change news, which predict what areas will be covered by water as sea level rises.

Even if the state doesn’t change disclosure rules, the private sector might come up with its own solutions.

Real estate agents have no interest in seeing deals fall apart at the last minute, said Terry Gearhart, government affairs chairman of the Hampton Roads Realtors Association and a manager with Rose Womble Realty Co.

Some are informing buyers early with what’s known as a “flooding addendum.”

“Every agent understands we’re in an era of full disclosure,” he said. “It’s going to come out at some point. The lender is going to look at it. How anyone would benefit from hiding it, I don’t know. The only time we get paid is when something closes.”


Amy Rhodes, HRRA’s chairwoman and managing broker at William E. Wood and Associates, said buyers are getting more savvy about living near water:

“They’re very cautious, and they’re doing their homework upfront.”

In late summer, the Stiffs’ real estate agent told Mary-Carson about a home in the Colonial Place neighborhood they might want to check out. The flood plain crossed a small part of the parcel, but the home itself was not in it. Expensive flood insurance would not be required. Still, her first instinct was to pass because of the proximity to possible flooding.

But after a long summer of fruitless searching, she agreed to take a look. The view from the porch made her a little nervous. She could see water, a tributary of the Lafayette River called Knitting Mill Creek.

“It was like, ‘I see you threatening,’ ” she recalled.

On the other hand, the 1923 home was elevated on a ridge that put it well above flood level. Plus, they liked it.

“I looked inside, and it was just perfect,” she said. “It had everything we wanted.”

It was a compromise of sorts. The flood plain was very close, but that’s the case in so many parts of Norfolk.

Even though they were not required to have flood insurance, they planned to buy a policy anyway. It will run about $400 year on the low-risk home, she said.

Most real estate and insurance agents, city planners and emergency planners in Hampton Roads agree homeowners should buy flood insurance even if they’re not in a flood plain.

“I just wouldn’t own a home in Hampton Roads without it,” said Dorcas Helfant-Browning, a partner at Coldwell Banker Professional Realtors in Virginia Beach.

The region has the highest percentage of homes outside a flood zone that are potentially uninsured and at risk for storm surge flooding – 86 percent, or 340,000 – according to a recent study by CoreLogic, a real estate research firm.

The night before closing on the home, Mary-Carson and Josh Stiff drove to Colonial Place for what they imagined would be a romantic stroll around their new neighborhood. They parked at the house.

It was a short walk. The street running parallel to Knitting Mill Creek, Mayflower Road, was impassable. A lunar high tide mixed with runoff from an earlier rainstorm had flooded it.

They turned around, back toward the high ground of their new life.

Aaron Applegate, 757-222-5122,



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FAA Faces Legal Action on Its Rules for Model Aircraft

On 23 June, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) published its interpretation of the “Special Rule for Model Aircraft,” which disgruntled quite of few people with an interest in flying model planes and helicopters. Many of those upset left critical feedback on the FAA’s website, but last week three groups went further and formally took legal action.

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Model Plane Hobbyists Will Zip, Dip & Dive At Baltimore’s Largest Fly-In

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HALETHROPE, Md. (WJZ)—Health professionals will tell you it’s a good thing to not only eat right, exercise, but also to have a hobby or two.

Mike Schuh introduces us to a group in Halethorpe who has listened to that advice.

Baltimore’s largest celebration of remote control airplanes is back for another weekend of high-flying fun.

The free event features local hobbyists zipping, dipping and diving their remote control planes, helicopters and jets hundreds of feet in the air.

Digger Drury’s plane has a real-life, tiny, tiny jet engine that can fit in your hand and a top speed of 200 miles an hour. You could buy a used car for what it costs to buy the radio-controlled model.

Drury never takes his eyes off it.

“Yeah, yeah, with this plane it’s a lot of money in the air,” Drury said.

The Charm City Memorial Fly-In is Baltimore’s biggest model airplane fly in.

Some 130 enthusiasts will fly this weekend and raise $2,500 for upkeep of their special county-owned flying field.

That fly in continues Saturday and Sunday. It’s free and is at the Southwest Area Regional Park. For more information, click here.

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Drone Strike

About drones? I’m glad you asked. 1956, the year when the Rattlesnake Patrol of the Boy Scouts of America got involved with drones. Honest, it wasn’t our fault. Not that we killed anyone with our drone but we did take out an enemy position. OK, so only we saw that barn as the enemy. Not that this was our original intent, but war is like that, collateral damage. Downside being, explain that to your dad.

v20i39_illustrationWEBmodel airplanes were quite the rage when I was a kid. Plastic models with all of 1,634 parts to include decals and bomb bay doors that ominously opened. Least that was the original idea, but only if you applied the glue precisely. Model glue at the time was Testors in a tube that turned the bedroom workshop into an anesthesia mask. A cyanoacrylate solvent when applied in excess reshaped what was supposed to be an elevator into something that didn’t move. With dozens of models to my credit, my mom thought I was hooked on model making. It was probably the glue.

These models covered every aircraft type from WWI-era Fokkers and Nieuports to the heaps of WWII bombers and fighters. Every self-respecting kid had in his bedroom a swarm of fighters and menacing bombers hanging on monofilament. To the end that bedroom was a miniature rendition of the Battle of Britain with Messerschmitts and Spitfires duking it out. To the consequence that a kid took up kinship with an airplane and to champion that plane like a sports star. If some kids were worshipful of Eddie Mathews and Mickey Mantle, there were some devoted to P-38s with tiger teeth or Spitfires with a twelve cylinder Merlin good for 35,000 feet in about 20 minutes. Stall speed 63 mph with flaps and under carriage down, engine reduced to 9# boost. Eight Browning .303 caliber machine guns available at 1,150 rounds per minute, the last 25 tracers to let the pilot know he was out of ammunition. At a gun show in 1961 my brother acquired a single .303 caliber round marked Swynnerton Armory, a round that once flew in a Spitfire. It was like having a sliver of the true cross.

Plastic models graduated to engine-powered airplanes, in the vernacular of that age known as string flight. String flight wasn’t for every kid, especially those who couldn’t tolerate dizzy. The object of hand-held flight was to tend that hot dog model airplane at 60 mph around a 24-foot radius. String control to affect the elevator setting, climb, dive and to include the wondrous trick of a straight-up climb, known as going over the top, to hopefully level out before crashing ignominiously at the other end of the string. 60 mph is 88 feet per second, so the stunt required a quick reaction time. Crashing did not do the airplane any good.

The tiny engines in those airplanes were marvels, no valves, just a piston pumping up and down against a glow plug, the fuel was 25 percent nitro. A smell so intoxicating that we’d start that engine in our bedroom, thin out the mixture with the screw so the rpms went from dull putter to a screech three octaves above high C. The fragrance of burnt nitro is as bracing as close-range perfume. Perhaps to note here a pattern of behavior.

The problem with string flight was its circular flight pattern. Besides being dizzy, it was a touch boring. With any airplane there is a gut-level need to watch it fly off. The trick to accomplish this was to set the elevator just a trifle above horizontal flight so the plane wasn’t a straight-line missile that at 80 mph and six feet of altitude put a scare in the neighbor’s cows. Neighbors get prickly about their cows. That trifle of elevator adjustment was for a flight angle that on theory ought to clear any local buildings, like a barn. In our case, an old barn, one thought derelict if occasionally filled with straw, whence the term straw barn. To only imagine what happens when a nitro-fueled airplane, or to use the modern term drone, hits the side wall of a barn dead-on at 80 mph, 108 feet per second, 25 percent nitro, glow plug, quarter ounce left in the tank.

Setting the elevator angle by “trifles” isn’t an exact science. Trifles have yet to find their way into standard English units of measurement. Seems we missed by half a trifle. Dead-on into the north-facing door of unpainted pine, sun-warmed, semi-flammable barn. Poor thing never knew what hit it. One moment standing there on the landscape proud as an old barn can be, the next a towering inferno, though it didn’t rage as long as a proper inferno should, being empty and awaiting the next oat straw harvest. We did not confess. Our dad went on to blame the trailer court kids playing with matches, or alternately the well-known town drunk who regularly holed up in that barn to smoke his own special blend of discarded cigarettes, rain soaked cigars, admixed with sumac leaves. Seems our dad was thinking of tearing it down anyway since the roof wasn’t doing the straw much good. This is how we kept to the Boy Scout oath for honesty. Since that barn was coming down anyway, why confess?

That fall we stored the straw in very neat stacks covered with a tarp, the stacks allied next to the cow barn. A lot more convenient than that straw barn a half a mile down the lane. Our dad openly admitted he was glad to have it gone, and once the foundation stones were buried the field was bigger, with a new sense of freedom, not having to steer around the old barn. We did wonder where the town drunk holed up after that barn, thinking another resource ought be provided.

For the record it was the Rattlesnake Patrol, Boy Scouts of America who invented the world’s first drone strike. We’re not sorry either.

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