© Stefan Mosebach

Fold it and fly 

  • TEXT LASLO SEYDA
  • ILLUSTRATION STEFAN MOSEBACH

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

 

The Twin Jet is a riff on fighter jets with two under-wing engines. It’s an example of what’s possible from the classic “water bomb base.”

The Twin Jet
is a riff on fighter jets with two under-wing engines. It’s an example of what’s possible from the classic “water bomb base.”

© Stefan Mosebach
The Tube is great for explaining center of gravity, boundary layer, precession and centrifugal force.

The Tube
is great for explaining center of gravity, boundary layer, precession and centrifugal force.

© Stefan Mosebach
The Star Fighter with its hexagonal wings inspired by Star Wars fighters is great for competing in the distance category.

The Star Fighter
with its hexagonal wings inspired by Star Wars fighters is great for competing in the distance category.

© Stefan Mosebach
The Super Canard The front wings of this model press the nose down, stabilizing the rear wings.

The Super Canard
The front wings of this model press the nose down, stabilizing the rear wings.

© Stefan Mosebach
The Pelican is a great flying plane in spite of all the origami junking up the air flow around the front.

The Pelican
is a great flying plane in spite of all the origami junking up the air flow around the front.

© Stefan Mosebach
The Max Lock body is locked, the nose seamless for minimal drag. That and its large wingspan give the plane a smooth, slow glide.

The Max Lock
body is locked, the nose seamless for minimal drag. That and its large wingspan give the plane a smooth, slow glide.

© Stefan Mosebach
The Ring Thing started as a personal design challenge. I’d never created a design with a circular nose before.

The Ring Thing
started as a personal design challenge. I’d never created a design with a circular nose before.

© Stefan Mosebach
The Biplane is two pieces of paper locked together with the “sink folding” origami technique to make the interlocking parts.

The Biplane
is two pieces of paper locked together with the “sink folding” origami technique to make the interlocking parts.

© Stefan Mosebach
The Batplane was supposed to be a seagull, but I got the balance wrong and it kept stalling. Then I figured out how to turn the stalling motion into a flapping motion.

The Batplane
was supposed to be a seagull, but I got the balance wrong and it kept stalling. Then I figured out how to turn the stalling motion into a flapping motion.

© Stefan Mosebach

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.

© Stefan Mosebach

A real winner

No paper plane has flown further than Collins’ Suzanne model. Here’s how to build it

1. Fold down both top corners of the paper to the opposite side. Make a crease and unfold.

1. Fold down both top corners of the paper to the opposite side. Make a crease and unfold.

© Stefan Mosebach
2. Now fold each upper corner inward so that the side meets the diagonal crease (see diagram).

2. Now fold each upper corner inward so that the side meets the diagonal crease (see diagram).

© Stefan Mosebach
3. Fold the nose down at the point where the side folds meet the original diagonal creases.

3. Fold the nose down at the point where the side folds meet the original diagonal creases.

© Stefan Mosebach
4. Fold the sides in along the existing diagonal creases to form a pointed nose.

4. Fold the sides in along the existing diagonal creases to form a pointed nose.

© Stefan Mosebach
5. Fold the paper in half along the central axis so that the sides meet. Start at the nose.

5. Fold the paper in half along the central axis so that the sides meet. Start at the nose.

© Stefan Mosebach
6. Progress check: The two sides of the plane’s body are face to face, right? Now for the wings.

6. Progress check: The two sides of the plane’s body are face to face, right? Now for the wings.

© Stefan Mosebach
7. Fold the wing down, making the fold just above the tip, not on it, for better aerodynamics.

7. Fold the wing down, making the fold just above the tip, not on it, for better aerodynamics.

© Stefan Mosebach
8. Make a sharp crease, then turn the plane over. Repeat steps 7 and 8 to make the second wing.

8. Make a sharp crease, then turn the plane over. Repeat steps 7 and 8 to make the second wing.

© Stefan Mosebach
9. Don’t despair: Even John Collins has crumpled up thousands of pieces of paper. Symmetry is key.

9. Don’t despair: Even John Collins has crumpled up thousands of pieces of paper. Symmetry is key.

© Stefan Mosebach
10. Turn the plane onto its back and tape the underside of the wings in two places on each side.

10. Turn the plane onto its back and tape the underside of the wings in two places on each side.

© Stefan Mosebach
11. Secure nose and tail (use tape less than six mm wide on the nose so you don’t alter the airflow).

11. Secure nose and tail (use tape less than six mm wide on the nose so you don’t alter the airflow).

© Stefan Mosebach
12. V-shaped wings create more stability. Collins recommends 155 degrees. Take aim and throw!

12. V-shaped wings create more stability. Collins recommends 155 degrees. Take aim and throw!

© Stefan Mosebach