May 26 is National Paper Airplane Day in the United States. World record-holder John Collins shows his best designs and explains what goes to make a perfect paper plane
One, two, three running steps, an underarm thrust and the white arrow rises into the sky. First it sails in a straight line, then it climbs steeper and steeper, then drops its nose and loses height, before swooping up again and sailing on. It lands a little bit further away – after just under ten seconds and 69.14 meters. The originator of this feat is John Collins, aka “The Paper Airplane Guy,” who with quarterback Joe Ayoob set the world record for the longest paper-plane throw at the McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, California, on February 26, 2012 – and they still hold it.
At an early age, Collins, 57, became fascinated by the laws of gravity and by the way nature defies them: “Fish flying above the water, maple seeds twirling like helicopter propellers – and the aerodynamics of bumble bees: The physical object still has undiscovered magic, yet to be quantified,” he exclaims enthusiastically. Once he discovered that a small aircraft can be built with a simple piece of paper, there was no stopping him.
Over the years, Collins experimented, using papers with grooves and coatings, throwing with little thrust or lots of it, and observing and measuring the effects of temperature and humidity. Then there was all the creasing, turning, folding and flying. Soon he identified the flaws of the standard, quick-and-easy model that’s made all over the world: the folded-down corners and edges that open in flight; the thin nose that crumples slightly when it crashes; the far too narrow wingspan. “A truly terrible design,” the expert groans, “but it was precisely these flaws that gave me the idea of doing it differently.”
In the end, it was Collins’ study of origami, the ancient Japanese art of paper folding, that turned his paper planes into record gliders. Collins began making paper bats, pelicans and seagulls, and also took inspiration from real aviation role models with noses, landing gears and nacelles. Suzanne, his wife, is driven almost crazy by the thousands of paper balls littering their living room. Collins designs planes that glide a long way, fly a loop or return to him like a boomerang. He invented the Tube, a perfectly round plane without wings that floats across the room. He amazes his audiences again and again, even the students at Harvard University’s School of Design, where he gives seminars. So what is Collins’ secret? “Sharp creases, overall symmetry,” he says. Making a good paper plane is not all that complicated. “All it takes is a little technique and a small amount of time.” His record-holding plane took three years to build, its 10-second flight is for eternity.
A real winner
No paper plane has flown further than Collins’ Suzanne model. Here’s how to build it