Sam Ortega, manager of the NASA Centennial Challenges Program, leads progressive aerospace initiatives, encouraging the participation of independent teams, individual inventors, student groups, and private companies. Most recently, the program’s Green Flight Challenge awarded the largest prize in aviation history.

Ortega: Jack Langelaan, a professor at Penn State University, acquired some technology from a company named Pipistrel-USA. They configured an aircraft with two fuselages — two separate areas where passengers would sit side by side. They were connected by a center wing, and then they had a typical left and right wing off of either side of the fuselage itself. It really was a unique looking aircraft, and it performed fantastically. When we put out the idea that you needed 200 passenger miles per gallon equivalent to win the competition, we were scoffed at. Two years ago, that was an impossible feat to be achieved. Here we are today: we ran the challenge, and not only did Jack Langelaan win with the Pipistrel aircraft, but he achieved 403 passenger miles per gallon. He doubled what the requirement was.

NTB: You said the idea was scoffed at. What have been the challenges in creating efficient aircraft, and why has there been a doubt about that?

Ortega: People were thinking of what we’ve done in history. When we’ve done aircraft improvements, it was more for speed, more for power. The new world order for general aviation is going to be ideas of green aviation, operability, reduction in flight maintenance, and reduction in parts on the aircraft. Those are the new challenges that are out there. When you look at the old historical model of competitions of aircraft technology, we’re well advanced. When you look at the new paradigms for fewer parts and more fuel efficiency aircraft, we’re right at the beginning of that era.

NTB: Who else was competing in this challenge?

Ortega: When we finally got to the competition, we had five teams that said they were going to compete. On the day before the competition, one team had to drop out, and then on the day of the competition, we actually lost another team due to not meeting all of the rules. By the time we competed, we only had three eligible teams in the competition: Team Phoenix out of Melbourne Florida, e-Genius from Winona, California, and Pipistrel from State College, Pennsylvania.

From a technology perspective, what is the key to aircraft efficiency? What were the innovative technologies that you’ve seen with these three competitors?

Ortega: The two competitors that won, e-Genius and Pipistrel, really pushed hard on efficiency of electric motors and electric batteries, using state-of-the-art batteries and functional structural mechanics. You design into the vehicle itself structural strength, so you don’t have a structural member that isn’t performing a flight function. The wings themselves are integral parts to where the shape and the strength come from. You’re really trying to reduce the weight by doing that.