One of my most popular programs is also the least expensive and easiest to set up. All I need are a pile of regular copier paper, a pile of copier paper cut into squares, 2 – 4 large pieces of bulletin board paper with giant targets drawn/painted on them, and the books we’ll be using on display in the “engineering and design area,” ready to be thumbed through, studied, and used. A roll of masking tape comes in really handy, too. Having a paper recycling receptacle for the fallen, crashed, and stepped upon makes clean up go a lot faster. Just in case pilots are feeling artistic, I have markers, crayons, and colored pencils on hand. Usually, though, folks are so focused on designing, folding, debating, training, and flying, that they don’t get around to the decorating.
I begin the program by gathering the group for a very short discussion about paper planes. I ask things like:
How many people in the group have ever folded a paper plane?
Did it fly well?
Was it a fast flier, a high flier, or a trick flier?
Can a paper plane be all three?
Are they aware that there are world record paper airplanes? For this question I like to be up to date, so I check ahead of time to make sure I have my facts and planes (if possible) ready.
As of my research today:
Longest flight distance:
69.14 m/226′ 10″ on February 26, 2012 designed and built by John Collins, and launched by Joe Ayoob
Here’s a video of the event:
John Collins has created a YouTube channel where he demonstrates how to fold Susanne, his record breaking plane, and many of the other planes he has designed over the years. Even better, he explains how and why his planes do what they do. Armed with that knowledge, people who follow his lead have the foundational knowledge and understanding to be able to create their own incredible paper planes.
Here is his tutorial for Susanne:
Longest flight time:
29.2 seconds on December 19, 2010 by Takuo Toda from Japan.
For anyone who is curious, there are 32 more records associated with paper planes listed on the Guinness Record site
The activity is simple – fold functioning paper airplanes and complete some challenges. Functioning means that it flies and that there is some degree of control over the flight or predictability about what it will do and where it will go. Although there is almost always someone in the group who makes the argument that a paper wad meets those criteria, it’s usually a short-lived argument, and its proponent is soon at a work table studying the pattern books and busily folding plane designs chosen to meet the challenges.
The challenges to the paper pilots are simple, but not necessarily easy. As mentioned before, they have to create a flying paper plane. Sometimes that’s challenge enough. I’ve gotten the impression that kids today don’t spend as much time turning their notebook paper into blue-lined air forces as we did when I sat in those hard wooden desks…
For those who are clearly novices, I step in and offer to assist if another participant doesn’t do so ahead of me. I’ve worked hard to create a space where all are welcome and all are respected, and as a result there is more of a friendly, cooperative atmosphere and less self-consciousness and fear. Program participants often divide themselves up of their own accord and work together, or even form friendly teams.
Back to the challenges… As I mentioned, they are simple. Once a plane has been completed and its flight capabilities have been demonstrated successfully in a marked off flight zone, where it merely has to show that it can fly, pilot and plane move on to the first official challenge – controlled flight. In the past I would hang a target on the wall and the challenge was to fly the plane into the target. Demolition derby fans really liked that, and put a lot of energy into crashing and destroying their paper creations. Others, though made a very good point when they noted that a plane that had just flown headlong into a brick wall wasn’t really in any condition to do anything else. So, we created a track on the floor with masking tape. To meet the challenge, planes have to get to the end of the track while staying between the strips of tape. Any plane that goes off course twice is eliminated. Pilots, though, are welcome to go back to the engineering and design area and build a new plane in order to try again.
The next challenge is the controlled landing. The pilot has to stand at a mark on the floor and launch the plane so that it lands on a target on the floor. I have several distances marked off, and after each successful landing, the pilot moves back to the next distant mark. When a plane misses the target twice, it is eliminated. The pilot is welcome to go back to the engineering and design area and build a new, different plane as long as there is time and paper.
Since Hula Hoops have been available to me the last couple of years, I’ve been considering ways to add to the challenges, incorporating the plastic hoops.
I usually set aside some time toward the end of the program to teach everyone how to fold a boomerang plane – one that returns to the pilot. Program participants have a great time learning how to tweak and adjust their planes to control the angle of the turn and size of the loop. Many had not realized that adjusting the folds of paper can change the flight of a paper plane so much. I like to show them this interview with John Collins, where he talks about how he gets ideas for planes, how he designs them, and how he redesigns and tweaks them until he gets the plane to do what he wants:
Paper planes are incredible, and brilliant people are engineering more amazing ones all the time. I really enjoy sharing their magic and seeing children’s eyes light up when they fold a plane that beats the paper plane challenges.
Humboldt, 2015, Alumni News: John Collins: the Paper Airplane Guy