The Science Of Paper Airplanes
September 25, 2013

The Science Of Paper Airplanes

Everyone has different, sometimes quirky, strengths in life.  For example, one of my best friends excels at paper airplanes.  I would call him an expert, but he would modestly substitute the term “enthusiast.”  Needless to say, I had the opportunity to have a chat with him and learn about the serious world of paper airplanes.

Red Bull actually sponsors a worldwide paper plane contest called “Red Bull Paper Wings.”  Competitors from around the world send in qualifying videos and undergo a series of eliminations.  They compete for distance, aerobatics, and longest airtime.

Every extreme group has a leader, and the king of the paper airplane world is Mr. John M. Collins, also known as “The Paper Airplane Guy.” He is the current Guinness World Record holder for the longest indoor flight of a paper airplane (226 feet).   The previous record was 210 feet.  He has published several books detailing his “science of paper airplanes.”

Mr. Collins develops infomercials and commercials by day and pursues his passion for paper airplanes on the side. He is fascinated by the way that different things in nature are able to fly, and how those characteristics of flight can be modeled by his creations.  He actually studied origami for 10 years, and that precision is quite apparent in his designs.

Mr. Collins was the first person to set the distance record with a gliding plane.  Everyone before him approached the task with a dart plane (shaped like a javelin).  These planes have minimal glide potential and low drag.  Mr. Collin’s design climbs up in flight and then falls back down in order to continue gliding.  This was a novel approach to an old problem.

Also, Mr. Collins did not throw his own design.  He asked a college quarterback, Joe Ayoob, to throw his paper plane for him so that he could maximize its flying potential.  In his words, “I’m a middle-aged man with a 51-year-old arm, so I can’t throw that far.”  This approach had never been taken before, but it was quite effective.

Mr. Collins loves the strategy behind paper airplane construction and execution.  He focuses on the different ways to manipulate paper in order to change the flight pattern of his creation.  He is famous for his “Boomerang Plane.”  When thrown, this plane flies in a circle and returns to your hands.

Aerodynamics of paper airplanes are distinctive from that of actual planes.  The materials, plus the size of the construction, are completely different.  Paper airplanes are more affected by changes in speed or shape.  Moreover, a paper airplane is made out of PAPER.  Higher speeds actually warp the shape of the wings and affect flight.

It is easy to adjust the construction of paper airplanes to bring different characteristics to flight.  However, it is difficult to run experiments because the plane is usually damaged after several attempts.

Mr. Collins was nine years old when he developed his passion for folding paper.  Industrious elementary school boys should be excited.  There may actually be a future in their paper airplane fascination!

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