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  The Story of CAFE

Order From Chaos

The amazing story of the CAFE Foundation’s flight test innovations, and why CAFE is the ideal organization to manage and conduct the Personal Air Vehicle Challenge.


“Excellence is a habit” — Aristotle

Innovation is a fundamental tendency of volunteerism. Beyond the obvious necessity to innovate when resources are scarce, it is the volunteer’s clear sense of personal responsibility and freedom from fear that propel this tendency. The history of the CAFE Foundation’s volunteers is vivid example.

Volunteers are free from corporate conservatism, bureaucratic stagnation and the ruts those entail. This makes them eager to try other paths and thus overcome challenges. Volunteers can better afford to be decisive, to commit themselves, to experiment and thus, to learn. The surest mechanism for such learning is that of the academy, wherein each volunteer does not experiment in a vacuum, but rather is both abetted and held accountable by their peers. CAFE has always been just such a ‘think tank’ and its members courteously hold one another to high standards while operating on the principle of “Prove it”.

The academy approach has made CAFE volunteers “savor the surprises”, i.e., drill down and learn more from each new insight. As CAFE Board member Jack Norris’ 2nd Law states, “If you thought it was simple, you simply didn't understand.” Jack convinced the CAFE team that “It’s all out there if you just keep digging”.

The following Story of the CAFE Foundation’s Flight Test Innovations shows how much can be accomplished by dedicated volunteerism.

The Birth of the CAFE 400

Saving fuel was a popular topic in the mid-70’s, when Americans were experiencing fuel rationing and long lines at gas pumps. At that time, outlandish advertising claims were being made about the high MPG of high speed kit aircraft. In 1977, Roy LoPresti introduced a new standard-setter in aircraft efficiency, the sensational 200 mph Mooney 201, a plane capable of over 20 MPG. The Experimental Aircraft Association’s Oshkosh Airshow became the focus of an annual aircraft race that emphasized fuel efficiency - the winner had to complete the 500 mile triangular race course while consuming no more than an allotted amount of fuel. Many felt that the fuel allotment was too arbitrary and constrained entries in the event. The race’s minimum qualifying speed also limited participation.

Brien Seeley, an eye surgeon who had built his own electric-powered car as an intern, turned his interest in saving fuel to the task of designing a new kind of flight efficiency competition. He set out to find a simple yet mathematically correct formula for aircraft efficiency around which to organize the competition. After much consideration, Seeley concluded that the aerodynamically valid, universal formula was rather simple: multiply the aircraft’s average velocity on the race course times its MPG times the cabin payload (W) in pounds. The formula, V x MPG x W was later found to be essentially the same as that derived by Nobel Physicist Teodor von Karman in the 1950s.

V x MPG x W became the CAFE Formula and led to the birth of the CAFE 400 race, as well as the volunteer CAFE Foundation which was founded to host the event. From 1981 to 1990, each summer’s CAFE race attracted the premier aircraft designers in the US to bring their sleekest aircraft to compete. The event became a kind of aeronautical academy for designers to test their innovations. It was no surprise that the best ones were adopted by rival competitors in the following year. The CAFE 400 popularized such innovations as high intensity ignition systems, lean of peak mixture settings, laminar flow surfaces made of high tech composite materials, leakage drag reduction, flush antennae, special propeller designs, cowl flap design improvements and many others.

The CAFE Scales

The CAFE 400 was made possible by funding from the Experimental Aircraft Association and the hard work and dedicated talents of volunteer members of EAA Chapter 124. These volunteers helped develop a special set of high-tech electronic scales that allowed each aircraft’s fuel consumption to be measured accurately by weighing before and after the race. The CAFE Scales became a key capability in allowing CAFE to later create other innovations.

Though its prize purse was a mere $2000, the CAFE 400 stimulated the design and building of several advanced experimental aircraft, including the Rutan Catbird, Niebauer’s Lancair, Jones’ White Lightning, Hamilton’s Glasair RG, Griswold’s Questair Venture and Sheehan’s Q200. In 1983, EAA awarded Brien Seeley its prestigious President’s Award in recognition of his work in founding the CAFE 400. In retrospect, the CAFE 400 spurred a renaissance of innovation in light aircraft that has yet to be duplicated. And it was all accomplished by volunteers.

The CAFE Triaviathon

In 1986, CAFE Board member Steve Williams, a brilliant engineer at Hewlett Packard, volunteered to design and build a highly accurate Barograph for the Voyager World Flight. This instrument could measure and record airspeed, altitude and temperature with great accuracy on a second by second basis. In what would become another of their many innovations, the CAFE team devised a way to externally mount this “CAFE Barograph” to the wingtip of any aircraft so that it could collect flight data throughout the flight. The flight data was obtained via a CAFE-designed-and-built, free swiveling pitot-static pressure probe that effectively eliminated sampling errors by self correcting for the aircraft’s angle of attack. After tests showed it worked flawlessly, a new flight competition was announced - the “CAFE Triaviathon”, which was to be held concomitantly with the CAFE 400 each year.

The Triaviathon was modeled after the popular athletic events called triathalons, in which contestants had to simultaneously excel in 3 separate tasks. The CAFE Triaviathon used the Barograph to measure each aircraft’s top speed, stall speed and rate of climb, three key parameters complementary to those measured in the CAFE 400 (cruise speed, fuel consumption and range). From the start there was great interest in the Triaviathon, and designers again set about winning by improving thrust, increasing lift and decreasing drag by a variety of innovations.

A New Direction—CAFE Aircraft Performance Reports

APRs in Sport Aviation

After 10 years of racing, and a great deal of evolution in small aircraft design, people concluded that the $2000 prize purse