The Paper Airplane Champion

(Image credit: Flickr user Russ)

How many reams of paper does it take to make a record-breaking paper plane? Its engineer, John Collins, explains.

Let’s talk about the record you broke for the farthest distance traveled by a paper airplane indoors—226 feet, 10 inches.
The previous record was 207 feet, four inches. It stood for about nine years. The [last] guy who set it was only 15 years old. Joe Ayoob and I -Joe is my thrower; he’s a professional football player- set our record in February of 2012.

I didn’t realize this is a team effort.
It was really the first time a team had tried. I realized fairly quickly that I didn’t have the arm to throw anything 200 feet. The old method for breaking the distance record was to make [a paper airplane that was basically] a fancy-looking stick with fins: Fold the paper as compact as you can; the whole wingspan is about an inch. Put the wings at equal angles to each other, so if the plane rolled to one side, it didn’t matter. Throw it really hard at a 45-degree angle, and it would do this parabolic arc because of gravity and crash into the finish line. That’s how I started to do it.

How was your plane different?
I built a real flying machine- a glider. It’s got a wingspan close to six inches. The old kind of plane took about three seconds to go 200 feet; mine took about nine seconds. When you watch the video, you can see that Joe released the plane almost straight in front of him. The plane climbed on its own, dropped over the top, really flared on the last third of the way, and glided gently across the finish line.

How can people see this world record flight?
Search for “world record paper airplane” or “John Collins world record.” That’ll get you to my YouTube channel, where there’s a video of the plane flying, folding instructions, and an offer of a $1,000 reward to use my plane and break my record.

(YouTube link)

You’re the record holder in distance. What are the other records?
Duration is the amount of time your plane can stay in the air. Another record is for simultaneous launch, the number of people who have launched a paper airplane at the same time.

Are there competitions?
Red Bull runs a global competition. It has a different set of rules than Guinness. Guinness allows you to try to break anybody’s record at any time: You get the most updated set of rules and then start working on breaking the record.

How did you get into this?
I never got out of it. Most people get over paper airplanes when they’re 9 or 10. I just kept going. Then I took up origami and studied that for about 10 years. I was one of the first people to take all of those techniques back to high-performance paper airplanes. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to, with one sheet of paper, create a really superior flying machine?”

What are some origami techniques you applied to paper airplanes?
Accuracy of folding, the crispness of the fold, the symmetry on the model. When you’re trying to
get a model to stand up on four legs, it’s really important to have both sides match- otherwise,
it’s going to lean over. I started making planes with landing gear. My latest book, The New World Champion Paper Airplane Book, has techniques to lock the plane’s nose together so that the wings don’t flop open in flight.

How much of your knowledge translates to traditional aviation and actual planes?
Most things are the same. The biggest difference is something called scale effect, during which the air appears to behave differently on the plane. I say “appears” because the air molecules behave perfectly consistently for their size, but on a big wing, a curved surface on the top tends to happen very gently over more distance. Small-scale wings tend to have less “laminar flow” -that is, the air doesn’t tend to smoothly follow the shape of the wings.

You seem to know quite a bit about aeronautics.
I love flight. When you look at bees and birds and model aircrafts and full-sized aircrafts, these things all fly amazingly well, and they use different techniques to do it. To me, that’s the interesting part. My approach is to just play, and I’ll come up with a plane that does something I don’t expect. Then I’ll start researching: Why is it doing that?

Where do you design your planes?
I have a storage area I’ve converted into what my wife and I refer to as “the global headquarters for the Paper Airplane Guy.” I have a piece of Plexiglass about three-quarters of an inch thick that I put down, so it’s a consistent folding surface every time. These days, I can do a lot of the folding in my head. When I get to the point where I can’t really visualize the next  few steps, I’ll then actually go about the business of folding it.

(YouTube link)

So there are no computers involved.
No. I do a lot of presentations for museums and schools, and most kids don’t think they can do science because they feel it requires computers and linear accelerators and all this crazy stuff. Science is just a way of figuring stuff out, being able to come up with a theory that works. You can noodle around, come up with your own ideas, and test them rigorously, and your laboratory is just a sheet of paper. When I explain that to museum people and kids, they get a kick out of it because they didn’t know they were doing science.

How much paper do you own?  
I have a few reams—I’m going to guess about 4,000 sheets of paper, and some of that is 24-pound paper. For planes that are going to travel with me, I use slightly thicker paper, because they get sandwiched between sheets of cardboard so I can get them all packed into one suitcase. It takes about eight hours to fold a set of planes for a presentation. So you don’t want to do that on-site. My ally is modest expectations. When they say a guy is going to throw paper airplanes, they have no idea I’m going to show up with planes that can tear across the room, make it a hundred  feet, glide really slowly, float over their heads, flap their wings, or go up and drop a helicopter.

What do most people do wrong when they try to make a paper airplane?
There’s a better way to fold the page in half than you’re probably doing. Line up all four corners, and then start from the middle of where the crease is going to be and sweep toward the ends. That way, you’re not going to magnify one small error from one end of the page to the other. You’re going to create symmetry right from the get-go. Also, if you’re going to learn how to make one plane for the rest of your life, it should be one of mine. But if it’s not one of mine, google “Nakamura Lock” -a really simple plane to fold. You can make tons of mistakes, and it’ll  still fly well.

(YouTube link)

Do you think there’s a theoretical maximum to this? Is the future wide open?
I think the future is wide open. The whole nature of the beast has changed. This is the first distance world record plane that’s a glider. The time aloft record was just broken twice by this guy, Takuo Toda, and now it’s 29.2 seconds. That is an amazingly long time for a paper airplane to be in the air. I’m starting to put together a national competition. There isn’t one in the U.S. right now, and it’s making me crazy. So I’m going to invent one.


The article above, by Jeff Rubin, appeared in the September 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

Don't forget to feed your brain by subscribing to the magazine and visiting mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog today for more!

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