The US Space Agency NASA has just awarded $250,000 in prize money this weekend to teams competing in a personal aircraft vehicle race sponsored by the Cafe Foundation at the Charles Schultz Sonoma County Airport in California. The object of the race was to design an aircraft which could one day become the prototype for "air cars." 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.
The short-wing Pipistrel, known as a Virus, swept most of the prize money because it's amazingly lightweight, according to Mark Moore, an aerospace engineer at NASA who used to preside over the PAV group before it was closed two years ago. "Only 682 pounds empty weight complete--it literally carries more useful load, that is passengers, fuel, and baggage, than the aircraft weighs."