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NASA planning sonic boom tests over Galveston

GALVESTON

“Did you hear that?”

That will be the question from many Galveston residents this fall, when NASA plans to fly jet planes over the Gulf of Mexico at supersonic speeds as part of a newly announced study.

The study is part of a long-term NASA project to design planes with quieter sonic booms. Data gathered during the study could aid in the development of supersonic commercial planes that don’t rattle windows when they pass overhead, said Peter Coen, NASA’s Commercial Supersonic Technology project manager.

NASA’s aeronautics division has been trying for more than a decade to develop aircraft that can break the sound barrier without disturbing the peace, and it’s now ready to start testing, Coen said.

“We think we’ve finally figured out a way to design airplanes that instead of producing a sharp crack, it’s kind of a dull thud,” he said during an interview on Monday at Galveston City Hall.

To test the new design, NASA has to collect data about sonic booms, which it will do off Galveston in November. A pair of NASA F-18s will perform special a maneuver in the air over the Gulf of Mexico that produces the “quieter” boom.

NASA will enlist about 500 volunteers who will be asked to fill out online surveys about how they reacted to the booms from the test flights. The agency also will install devices across the island to collect information about the sonic booms, Coen said.

Galveston was chosen because of its proximity to the water and its relatively condensed population, he said.

The tests shouldn’t cause much of a public disruption, Coen said. The planes will perform maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico at between 30,000 and 50,000 feet. The sonic booms should sound something like distant thunder, he said.

The F-18s will take off from Ellington Airport in Houston.

NASA will spend the coming months conducting outreach with community groups to gather interest, and sooth nerves, about the coming tests.

NASA officials already have met with Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough, and had plans Monday to meet with the Port of Galveston and cruise line officials to talk about what ships and boats in the Gulf might experience during the tests.

“There may be some rattling noises,” Yarbrough said. “I think overall it’s going to have minimal impact on us.”

City employees will be briefed on how to respond to questions from residents about the testing, Yarbrough said.

The tests are part of the longer-term development of a quieter supersonic commercial jet plane.

Earlier this month, NASA awarded a $247.5 million contract to develop and build the X-Plane, a 94-foot-long aircraft that will be able to travel at speeds up to 940 mph.

NASA’s goal is to create planes that can fly horizontally without creating loud sonic booms.

Aircraft can now achieve supersonic speeds without producing thunderous booms by doing a specific dive maneuver, Coen said.

NASA’s goal is to design a plane that can deflect supersonic jets’ shockwaves so the planes can be flown over land. Federal laws prohibit planes from breaking the sound barrier over land because of problems caused by sonic booms.

Today’s commercial aircraft travel at about 550 MPH. The speed of sound is about 767 at sea level and slower at higher altitudes.

The X-Plane won’t make its first flight until 2021, and won’t be tested over populated areas until 2023.


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editor's pick centerpiece
Texas City Disaster survivors gather on anniversary

TEXAS CITY

Inez Martinez was working on the ship Grandcamp the night before the explosion that killed hundreds of people in Texas City — the deadliest industrial disaster in U.S. history.

When the blast happened on April 16, 1947, Martinez was four days from turning 21. He worked different jobs to get by.

At $3.33 an hour, the work on the ship paid about three times more than his regular job moving concrete, so Martinez liked working there when he could, he said. But with rain in the forecast, he didn’t think he’d be able to work on the ship that fateful day and instead went to work moving concrete.

“Going to the other job ended up saving our lives,” Martinez said.

Each year, Martinez, 92, attends an anniversary event at Memorial Park in Texas City to remember the people who died on that horrific day, he said.

On Monday morning, Fire Chief David Zacherl shared the story of the Pelly Fire Department fire truck — the last known operating fire apparatus that responded to the explosion — during the yearly memorial.

The ceremony also honored former Baytown Assistant Chief Bernard Olive, who had planned to tell the story of the Pelly fire truck he bought and restored to preserve its history. But Olive died on April 5.

“Bernard was a historian and believed that history was an important part of America and should be told and remembered,” city Commissioner Phil Roberts said.

Pelly was one of three communities — along with Goose Creek and Baytown — now combined to make up the city of Baytown, which is north of Texas City, that responded to the call for help after a fire on the Grandcamp, where ammonium nitrate was being shipped, led to an explosion, Zacherl said.

The fire detonated the ammonium nitrate. Shortly after, the High Flyer, another ship, exploded. The blasts were felt in Galveston. Houses were shaken off their foundations. About 600 people died and more than 5,000 were injured.

All 27 firefighters on the Texas City Fire Department were killed and the department’s three trucks were destroyed.

A call had gone out for help and fire crews from all over the region, including Pelly, arrived to fight off the blast, Zacherl said. The Pelly crew included Alton Olive, Bernard Olive’s cousin.

“On the evening of the 16th, it became apparent that they were not going to be able to extinguish the fires aboard the High Flyer and the decision was made to evacuate the area,” Zacherl said.

The crew had made it back to state Highway 146 when the High Flyer exploded, he said.

“Shrapnel began falling from the sky, in fact; Alton Olive was hit by a piece about the size of a 50-cent piece on the helmet, which knocked him off the back of the truck,” Zacherl said. “The firefighters then dove under the truck in an attempt to avoid the falling metal from the explosion of the High Flyer.”

The crews returned after the sky cleared and continued fighting fires for the next three days, he said.

The truck stayed in commission until 1975 and was put up for auction in 1977, he said. Bernard Olive won a bidding war with a local scrap dealer to buy the truck and kept it in his backyard for decades working on it and restoring it to its original condition, Zacherl said.

“Thanks to the efforts and dedication of Bernard, his family and friends, the truck you see here today is as it was on the day it responded right down to the equipment mounted on the truck,” Zacherl said.


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Six months after texting ban, few area drivers cited

GALVESTON

More than six months after the state of Texas instituted a law prohibiting drivers from texting while driving, police departments from Galveston County’s two largest cities say they have issued few citations against drivers for the infraction.

During the first six months the law was in effect — from Sept. 1, 2017, to March 1 — the city of Galveston did not issue a single citation under the state’s texting while driving law, according to a response to a public information request submitted by The Daily News.

The city of League City has issued seven citations for texting while driving since the law went into effect, a spokesman said on Monday.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed the texting ban into effect last June, after the proposal was approved by state legislators. It had failed passage in three previous legislative sessions.

The ban created a misdemeanor offense for people who use a portable wireless communication device to read, write or send electronic messages while operating a vehicle.

Violators can be fined up to $200 for the infraction.

But while distracted driving is a contributor to many local car accidents, the way the current law is written makes it difficult for officers to cite drivers for the violation, Galveston Police Department spokesman Capt. Joshua Schirard said.

“The way the law is written it is very, very difficult to prove that the person is using the device in that manner,” Schirard said.

While the law prohibits people from using devices while driving, it does allow people to use their devices while a vehicle is stopped. The law also allows the use of the device in an emergency or a potential emergency, Schirard said.

When the Galveston Police Department does issue a citation under the texting ban, it will likely come from an after-the-fact investigation of a crash, Schirard said. He compared it to how some people are sometimes charged with intoxicated manslaughter after blood tests come back.

“The reason the law was written was so that we had an investigative tool,” Schirard said.

Officers can seek a search warrant if they suspect a violation, he said. But the law does not allow police officers to search a person’s phone at the scene of the crash, he said.

“It’s very, very difficult for us,” Schirard said. “It’s not like most traffic laws.”

League City Police Department spokesman Kelly Williamson declined to speculate on the reasons why so few people had been cited for the violation in the past seven months.

While there’s been little meaningful enforcement of the law, state officials are pushing the texting ban as part of an awareness campaign this month.

The Texas Department of Transportation said there were 537,475 motor vehicles crashes on Texas roads in 2017. Of those, 100,687 crashes and 444 deaths were connected to distracted driving, officials said.

The transportation department partnered with AT&T to bring virtual reality distracted driving simulators to 18 Texas cities this month. There are no plans for the campaign to visit Galveston County.