Sport airplane wins NASA challenge

NASA awards $250,000 in prize money this weekend to teams competing to build and fly a small-seat plane that could one day be a prototype for so-called air cars.

Cafe Foundation

SONOMA, Calif.--NASA awarded $250,000 in prize money this weekend to teams competing to build and fly a small-seat plane that could one day be a prototype for so-called air cars.

The Cafe Foundation, a nonprofit group of flight test engineers, held the NASA-sponsored race of personal aircraft vehicles (PAVs) on Saturday here at the Charles Schultz Sonoma County Airport. Four teams flying small two-seater planes competed against each other in six categories: speed, short takeoff, efficiency, handling, noise and overall best (or the vantage grand prize).

After all of the race data was tallied Saturday, NASA named its winners in the evening. The grand prize of $100,000 went to the team flying a slightly modified short-wing Pipistrel Virus, a Slovenia-built sport aircraft that's only recently been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration and which sells for about $70,000. That plane, flown by an Australian pilot who works for Pipistrel, also won $25,000 for the best short-take off, and another $25,000 for the efficiency challenge. The Australian pilot Michael Coates called the plane the "Prius of airplanes" not because it's a hybrid but because it can go as fast as 170 mph and get 50 miles to the gallon.

A highly modified kit plane, a Vans RV-4, won $25,000 in the speed challenge and another $50,000 for emitting the least amount of noise on its flight. Finally, the team flying a Cessna 172, the most popular small plane in production since the 40s, won $25,000 for handling.

"The results make sense--the Cessna 172 is the most successful (and highest production volume small aircraft) precisely for the reason that the handling qualities are so good," said Mark Moore, an aerospace engineer at NASA who used to preside over the PAV group before it was closed two years ago.

"The RV-4 had a large number of modifications to achieve the lower noise, and they did an enormous amount to flight testing with noise meters to become masters of low noise flight," Moore added.

The short-wing Pipistrel, known as a Virus, swept most of the prize money because it's amazingly lightweight, he said. "Only 682 pounds empty weight complete--it literally carries more useful load, that is passengers, fuel, and baggage, than the aircraft weighs."

That the space agency awarded the prize money is notable, given that other NASA-sponsored contests like the Lunar Lander Challenge haven't garnered any winners yet. The PAV race is part of its so-called Centennial Challenges, a series of government-sponsored competitions that support space exploration and aviation technologies in private industry. NASA has staked a total of $2 million for the five annual PAV challenges.

"Next year the prizes are larger (and will be harder to win)," said Moore.