Can personal aircraft beat gridlock?

NASA thinks so, and it's offering prize money for teams heading to the skies in a contest starting Saturday.

The greenest way to drive might soon be to fly, if personal aircraft advocates have their way.

The Cafe Foundation, a nonprofit group of flight test engineers, on Saturday will kick off its first NASA-sponsored contest of personal aircraft vehicles, or PAVs, which is being held at the Charles Schultz Sonoma County Airport in California. The goal of the challenge will be to test the fuel efficiency and speed of PAVs--high-tech two-seater planes--so they could one day serve as a more economical, environmentally friendly way for people to get around and circumvent auto gridlock, according to Brian Seeley, president of the Cafe Foundation.

NASA is putting up $250,000 in prize money for the weeklong contest as part of its so-called Centennial Challenges, a series of government-sponsored competitions that support space exploration and aviation technologies in private industry. It has staked a total of $2 million for the five annual PAV challenges, which were slated to begin last year but were delayed.

"We're burning up into smoke 6.7 billion gallons of gas annually (from being) stuck in traffic jams," said Seeley, whose Cafe Foundation was chosen by NASA in 2005 to run the PAV challenges.

"These air vehicles can travel in three dimensions without any traffic jams, and the computer technology today enables travel that can be on demand at speeds three to four times faster than cars with equivalent gas mileage."

In this competition, contestants will run their PAVs on aviation fuel. But Seeley said some contestants for next year's competition are already working on PAVs that run on alternative energy sources such as batteries or fuels like biodiesel, made from vegetable oil. (A biodiesel PAV could go 900 miles on 25 gallons, for example.)

By year three, the foundation expects to see its first electric-powered personal aircraft, Seeley said. Last month, Sonex Aircraft introduced a kit for making an electric-powered aircraft at the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2007 conference.

NASA aeronautics developed the PAV concept to provide a "more distributed and less centralized system of air travel," according to the Cafe Foundation. The idea is that these small planes, with built-in GPS and terrain mapping, could take people within a few miles of their doorstep (landing on short airstrips) at a faster clip, expelling less fuel. People would be able to get a license to fly PAVs as easily as a driver's license, and they could fly them with the help of a computerized control system and "synthetic vision," or technology that supplies a moving 3D view of the world even when flying in total fog.

Before that idea plays out, if it ever does, NASA and Cafe Foundation will test four contestants this week on several factors, including ease of use of the vehicle, safety and overall design attractiveness.

Cafe Foundation will test the PAVs on a "shortest runway" to determine which planes are able to land in the most efficient space, as well as monitor their internal and external noise emissions. Finally, and most importantly, Seeley said, the challenge will test the PAVs' speed versus miles per gallon. It won't be easy, he said, because a fast plane could get crummy mileage, and a slow plane could get excellent mileage, so fliers must balance both.

"The PAV Efficiency Prize will be awarded to the aircraft with the lowest trip cost," according to the foundation, which will factor in trip speed and fuel cost over a 400-mile closed course.

Seven contestants were originally signed up to compete this week, but three teams dropped out in July because they couldn't get approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration on licensing. The Cafe Foundation has since been looking for replacements.

One of the teams is flying a home-built plane based on a heavily modified RV-4, which has a 200 horsepower engine. Two of the other contestants are flying Slovenian-built aircraft called Pipistrel, which have 100 horsepower engines. The final flier is a Cessna 172, which runs a 160 horsepower engine.

"Eventually, we'll have electric aircraft that will have zero emissions," said Seeley.