Photos: Personal aircraft for you and me?

Some aircraft enthusiasts--and NASA--are checking out small propeller-driven planes as a possible way to undo gridlock on the roads.

Short-wing Pipistrel and pilot
Australian pilot Michael Coates and his short-wing Pipistrel were the big winners at the PAV Challenge. Stefanie Olsen/CNET News.com

There's a lot of room for novel aircraft design between the gargantuan (the Airbus A380) and the flimsy (that balsa wood toy that never flew the way you wanted it to).

One such design that's getting some attention these days--from no less than the likes of NASA--is the "personal aircraft vehicle." The notion here is that small propeller-driven planes could someday become the Camrys and Escorts of the skies, whisking commuters to the office or on short business trips while also undoing the gridlock that defines the automotive life for so many of us working stiffs.

Over the weekend, a small bevy of aerospace engineers and airplane enthusiasts headed to an off-the-beaten-path airfield in Santa Rosa, Calif., for the inaugural edition of NASA's PAV Challenge--a contest intended to assess key qualities of potential aerial commuting craft. A prize purse totaling $250,000 awaited entrants who scored best on matters such as engine noise, fuel efficiency and overall niftiness.

For a look at some of the people and planes vying for the prize money, check out News.com's gallery, "Photos: Commuter challenge in the skies." Terrafugia's futuristic flying car was present in spirit only, but there were some sleek Slovenia-built Pipistrels on hand. Those of us who had a fleeting childhood fantasy of being an ace fighter pilot will have to dream on still about pulling into the office parking lot with the vintage Yak-3; it was there for display only--and apparently is an oil hog to boot.

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