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Pulitzer Trophy dusted off for electric aircraft

1,000-mile cross-country race slated for May

Five of the first six pilots to have their names engraved on the Pulitzer Trophy were military airmen clocked around a closed course at speeds starting at 157 mph in 1920, up to a blistering 248 mph by 1925. The trophy was created to inspire innovation, and particularly faster airplanes. That vintage trophy housed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum will be engraved with its first new name in 97 years in 2022, following completion of a 1,000-nautical-mile cross-country race by up to 25 electric aircraft.

Photo by Mike Fizer.

It remains to be seen how many electric aircraft will answer the call to spend two or three days (flying day VFR only) covering the distance between Eppley Airfield in Omaha, Nebraska, and Dare County Regional Airport in Manteo, North Carolina. (The National Aeronautic Association may have been tempted to set the finish line 5.97 nautical miles north at Kill Devil Hills, though First Flight Airport is only 999 nautical miles from Omaha; it has no electric charging infrastructure yet installed; and its amenities are limited to restrooms, a pilot lounge, and Wi-Fi.)

Ralph Pulitzer, the son of Joseph Pulitzer (whose endowment allowed Columbia University to create the more famous Pulitzer Prize that recognizes excellence in journalism, photography, literature, history, poetry, music, and drama), created the original air races to give early aircraft designers an incentive to improve distance over time. The younger Pulitzer, a newspaper publisher himself, sponsored six closed-circuit races against the clock that were dominated by military aircraft and were the forerunners of the Stihl National Championship Air Races of the present day. 

NAA (founded in 1905 as The Aero Club of America) seeks to recapture the magic of the great airplane races of yesteryear, and tapped retired U.S. Air Force pilot Scott Neumann to serve as director of the Pulitzer Electric Aircraft Race, which was announced July 21 at the (virtual) Electric Aircraft Symposium held just ahead of EAA AirVenture. Neumann’s briefing, later posted on YouTube, described the upcoming event as a “resumption” of the original Pulitzer races that were conducted six times between 1920 and 1925. The first was held on Long Island in November 1920, when U.S. Army Lt. Corliss Moseley took home a gold iteration of the actual Pulitzer Trophy (a silver-clad bronze sculpture designed by Mario Josef Korbel) as a tangible take-home prize that was destined to be sold for $16,966 in a 2011 auction.

Moseley went on to help found Western Air Express in 1924; Bert Acosta, the only civilian pilot in that first Pulitzer race, finished third, though he went on to win the 1921 race in Omaha, where the 2022 event is scheduled to begin, and remains the only civilian to claim the trophy—a distinction that may be erased next year.

Neumann said the race rules allow up to 25 participants to fly piloted, heavier-than-air aircraft (drones are not eligible) of any type, across a route chosen in part for its relatively benign terrain. Recognizing that many potential entrants are still in a relatively early stage of development, there will be no flying at night, and only the time between liftoff and landing, as recorded by on-board GPS devices provided by NAA, will count toward the race time.

Electric propulsion is a must, though that electricity can be stored in any combination of batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, optionally augmented by solar panels. Vertical takeoff and landing aircraft are welcome, as well as fixed-wing airplanes.

“We wanted to design a race that advances electric aviation technology, and promotes public acceptance of electric aviation, by flying real aircraft in real airspace, landing at real airports,” Neumann said. “We have designed the Pulitzer Electric Aircraft Race to provide an open canvas for design innovations, and to be a sort of flying expo for the electric aviation industry.”

Neumann said race registration will open in December. He encouraged more sponsors to join the first two: Signature Flight Support and FlightAware, which will allow the public to track the progress of each race aircraft online in real time.

It was not immediately clear who will be lining up to race from Omaha to (near) Kitty Hawk, with several recharging stops almost certainly required due to physics and current battery capacity. There are more than 300 electric VTOL aircraft currently in development, and a few electric airplanes already in service, with more on the way. Messages sent to about half a dozen industry leaders produced some expressions of curiosity, but no firm commitments.

One other organization will be participating for sure: Carrot, an organization that promotes science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, will get elementary school students (grades 5 and 6) engaged in STEM learning activities built around the race, Neumann said.

Neumann closed his pitch urging potential participants to “build us into your plans … this is going to be a great opportunity to do some operational testing with these aircraft in a realistic environment, and a clear signal to investors and buyers that these aircraft are really ready to go places.”

Jim Moore
Jim Moore
Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Electric

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