(January 2012) The news cycle is like a carousel whose riders are ever changing. For a brief moment in September, the Green Flight Challenge swept past: NASA handed a prize of $1.35 million to an airplane that had achieved an efficiency of 400 passenger-miles per gallon. Huh? said the world — and then along came Jen and Angie.
The contest that had produced this surprising but ephemeral result was set in motion by the CAFE (Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency) Foundation, which for the past three decades has encouraged innovation and refinement in general aviation with a series of programs and competitions. It started with the CAFE races, efficiency contests that took place in northern California from 1981 to 1990. Based on an evolving formula combining speed, fuel consumption and payload, they had quite an impact: Several airplanes, including Burt Rutan’s Catbird, were specially designed as CAFE racers. But toward the end it seemed as though the universe of hyperefficient CAFE winners had shrunk to the VariEzes of two monomaniacal modifiers, Gary Hertzler and Klaus Savier.
After the CAFE races came the Triaviathon. The all-time champion of that contest, which measured only minimum and maximum speed and rate of climb, was the Lycoming IO-360-powered RV-4 of Dave Anders, which managed to stay aloft at less than 39 knots, hit a top speed of 218 knots and climb at more than 3,300 fpm.
It is interesting that the most successful contestants in the CAFE races and the Triaviathons were not purpose-built airplanes but highly optimized instances of stock designs. If this means anything, it seems to be that persistent experimentation and fanatical attention to detail, rather than basic design, are the keys to
In recent years, the CAFE Foundation has been agitating for a paradigm shift in airplane design. To suggest a clean break with all that we take for granted, it calls the still imaginary airplanes of the future PAVs — personal aerial vehicles. They should be capable of operating out of tiny airports or no airport at all; should be quiet, nonpolluting and affordable to operate; should have simple, standardized controls; and should incorporate robotic and all-weather capabilities that reduce the skill level required of pilots to about that needed to operate a rented Chevrolet.