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The Green Life: Undergrads the Underdogs in a Green-Flight Contest. But They May Win.

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September 16, 2011

Undergrads the Underdogs in a Green-Flight Contest. But They May Win.

Embry-Riddle's Eco Eagle Think 50 miles per gallon in your Prius is good? How about more than 200 mpg in an airplane?

The engineers participating in the Green Flight Challenge must clear that hurdle for a chance to win a chunk of $1.65 million, the biggest civil-aviation prize ever offered.

The contest, created by the Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency Foundation and sponsored by NASA and Google, requires that the planes go at least 100 mph during a 200-mile flight and average more than 200 mpg. The planes are powered by gasoline, biodiesel, hydrogen, and electricity. The first-place team will get $1.35 million; second place takes home $120,000.

In addition to speed and fuel-efficiency requirements, qualifying planes must be able to clear a 50-foot barrier on a 2,000-foot runway during takeoff and landing, be able to fly at less than 52 mph without stalling, meet community noise requirements of less than 78 dBA, and weigh less than 6,500 pounds.

Of the 14 original contestants, just five are still in the running, and just one of those is from a university. Unlike the other teams, the one from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University consists almost entirely of student volunteers. Around 200 students and one faculty adviser created the Eco Eagle (pictured), a two-passenger hybrid plane that runs on gas and electricity.

"They’re not employees for a company," said Bob Ross, the university's spokesperson. "It’s kind of a David-Goliath thing." Ross also explained that Embry-Riddle's team achieved a first in aviation history by creating and flying the first plane with a propulsion system that seamlessly transitions from gas to electric power while in flight.

The competition begins at the Charles M. Schulz airport in Santa Rosa, California, on Sept. 25 and ends on Oct. 3 at Moffett Field in Mountain View, where the winners will be announced.

The public may register to attend the free Oct. 3 exhibition, which will be hosted by NASA and feature demonstrations and fly-bys.

--Avni Nijhawan

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