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Paper Airplane Research Review

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

Glimpses at some of the relevant papers
compiled by Bertha Vanatian,
Improbable Research staff

BonDurant’s Better Plane

“Folded Paper Airplane,” U.S. Patent #4377052, issued March 22, 1983 to James BonDurant for:

A folded paper airplane formed of a blank of sheet material having a downfold line extending along an axis of the sheet, a pair of transverse cuts near a rear edge and forming a tail piece, a pair of fuselage forming upfold lines extending from the midpoints of segments of the forward edge to a point adjacent the intersection of the downfold line and the transverse cuts, a pair of cockpit forming downfold lines extending from the midpoints, a pair of set of at least two successive upfold lines extending from the same midpoints, and a pair of wing forming downfold lines extending from the leading edges of the resulting wing surfaces near the cockpit to terminate at the other distal ends of the transverse cuts.

Paper Airplanes in Water

Detail from Feng et al.’s study of paper airplanes in flowing water.

“On the Aerodynamics of Paper Airplanes,” Ng Bing Feng, Kng Qiao Mei, Pey Yin Yin, and Jörg U.
Schlüter, 27th American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Applied Aerodynamics Conference, June 2009, San Antonio, Texas. The authors, at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, report:

The design of Micro Air Vehicles is challenging since the aerodynamic efficiency of airfoils and wings decreases at low Reynolds-numbers.... We present flow visualizations and force measurements in a water tunnel on the dart paper airplane design.

Microsocietal Improvements in Paper Airplane Design

“Social Learning Mechanisms and Cumulative Cultural Evolution: Is Imitation Necessary?” Christine A. Caldwell and Ailsa E. Millen, Psychological Science, vol. 20, no. 12, December 2009, pp. 1478–83, DOI 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02469.x. The authors, at the University of Stirling, U.K., report:

Seven hundred participants were organized into 70 microsocieties and completed a task involving building a paper airplane. We manipulated the availability of opportunities for imitation (reproducing actions), emulation (reproducing end results), and teaching. Each condition was independently sufficient for participants to show cumulative learning. Because emulative learning can elicit cumulative culture on this task, we conclude that accounts of the unusual complexity of human culture in terms of species-unique learning mechanisms do not currently provide complete explanations and that other factors may be involved.

Paper Airplanes in Zero-G

“Zero-Gravity Flight of Paper Airplanes,” John Bain, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Atmospheric Flight Mechanics Conference and Exhibit, 2000. The author reports that:

In the spring of 1999 and again in the spring of 2000, a set of experiments were conducted flying paper airplanes in a laboratory... aboard the KC-135 aircraft during “zero-gravity” operations.

Autonomous Paper Airplane / Missile Defense System

“An Autonomous Missile Defense System,” Daine Richard Lesniak, Douglas J. Hickok, Kristopher Whisler, and Michael C. Rowe, UWP Computer Science and Software Engineering Student Conference Publications, 2005. The authors, at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, report:

The paper airplane defense system is organized into three subsystems that detect and locate, track and target, and control a turret and shoot a compressed air gun. This paper describes the details of design, development, integration, and calibration of the software components as well as the specification and construction of the hardware components of this system.

Mass Production of Paper Airplanes

Detail from the Simpson study on paper airplane mass production.

“Experiences with a Hands-on Activity to Contrast Craft Production and Mass Production in the Classroom,” Timothy W. Simpson, International Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 19, no. 2, 2003, pp. 297–304. The author, at Pennsylvania State University, reports:

This activity provides a simple, yet dramatic, approach to demonstrate the benefits and drawbacks of craft and mass production.

Paper Plane Propelled by Laser Driven Exotic Target

“Microairplane Propelled by Laser Driven Exotic Target,” T. Yabe, C. Phipps, M. Yamaguchi, R. Nakagawa, K. Aoki, H. Mine, Y. Ogata, C. Baasandash, M. Nakagawa, E. Fujiwara, K. Yoshida, A. Nishiguchi, and I. Kajiwara, Applied Physics Letters, vol. 80, no. 23, June 10, 2002. The authors, at Tokyo Institute of Technology, report:

We propose a propulsion concept to drive a microairplane by laser that can be used for observation of climate and volcanic eruption. Since it does not have to develop thrust for vertical takeoff, and it has no engine in the normal sense, the microairplane can be very light, with its payload consisting only of observation and communication equipment. In order to demonstrate the concept, we succeeded in flying a paper microairplane driven by a 590 mJ, 5 ns pulse yttrium–aluminum–garnet laser that impinges on a double-layer “exotic target.”


This article is republished with permission from the January-February 2010 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift! Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

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