John Collins, A.K.A. The Paper Airplane Guy and his paper airplanes are amazing. I’ve folded a lot of paper airplanes in my day, but I’ve never thrown anything like the Boomerang.
Yes, with some work and practive, it does come back, but it’s more than that. It’s the way it comes back — boldy, unhurriedly circling the room and gliding in for a landing in your hand.
Before the Boomerang, my favorite plane was Collins’ Glart — a glider/dart hybrid that’s easy to fold and flies like a dream. The instructions for the Glart and 19 other paper aircraft are in Collins’ book: The Gliding Flight.
In this interview Collins covers everything from tweaking your standard schoolroom glider to pushing the boundaries of papery possibility.
Q: Every kid knows those two basic airplane folds which are pretty lame. Are there any easy tweaks that can be done to get them flying better?
A: There are some very easy things that most people miss.
First, fold carefully. No matter what design you’re folding, there’s no substitute for crisp, accurate folding.
Second, the trailing edge of plane; the rear; is the most important part of the aircraft when you’re talking about controlling flight. Keep it clean and unwrinkled.
Third, and easily the most frequent error I encounter, is a lack of positive dihedral angle. Those are fancy words for having the wings leave the body of the airplane with an upward sweep. It’s amazing how much more accurate and easy to control your paper airplane becomes just by tilting the wings upward instead of downward.
Q: You travel around demonstrating planes and plane-making to lots of adults and kids. Which plane do you teach them?
A: I generally teach The Nakamura Lock to a large crowd. It’s easy, a great flier, and (really important for crowds) it has a blunt nose. Frequently, people will tell me that they’ve folded the plane before, but this is the first time they’ve made one that flies. Of course, I run them through the steps above before they test fly.
Q: My kids love paper airplanes, but have a hard time making a good throw. Any suggestions for planes that can handle sloppy, overenthusiastic throws? How about adults? What can we do to improve our launches?
Throwing is definitely a learned art. My advice is always the same. Have some fun. Then, if you’re serious about getting distance or time aloft, you need to assess what the airplane is doing after it uses up your throwing energy. Throw the plane gently. Launch by holding the plane where the most layers of paper overlap. That’s probably close to the center of gravity. It’s best to put your throwing strength to work right there. Ideally, you’re trying to throw the same speed the airplane glides at balanced, un-powered flight velocity.
Carefully observe what the airplane is doing. Compensate. Repeat. Once the plane is flying straight, increase the speed of the throw and keep making subtle adjustments as you step up the speed. You have to work your way to a great throw. It takes about eight hours for me to get ready for a performance. About half of that is adjusting the airplanes after I fold them.
Q: What’s the current world record situation?
That is an interesting question. Both time aloft and distance have been broken in the last 12 months. Distance has just cracked the 200 foot mark, and time aloft is still below 30 seconds. I’ve just found a venue for making an attempt for both duration and distance. So, wish me luck. I intend to go after both records in a single day. As far as I’m aware, nobody has ever grabbed both records, let alone at the same time. I’m hopeful this is possible, but I’ve yet to throw a plane in that space. It’s all a lot of talk until I actually get in there and practice. You can calculate and guestimate, but there just aren’t a lot of indoor spaces that come ready made for these kind of attempts. Basically, you need a football field sized space with unlimited ceiling; all indoors. It’s a bit of a contradiction in demands and a testament to how well a good paper airplane really flies.
Q: Have you reached the limits of what’s possible with a single piece of paper or are you still finding ways to extend gliding time or add aerobatics? Is there a Holy Grail of Paper Airplaning that’s still elusive?
If there are limits, I’m not close to them yet. Every time I visit an aviation museum, I find some design I need to work out in paper. I recently figured out a subtle way to fold a curved surface wing; one that is reliably curved on top and flat on the bottom. I’ve been playing with that one for a while, and then it accidentally happened while I was putting an eagle head on a design. Weird, right?
I just figured out a new approach for using a full sheet of phone book paper for my “follow foil”design. That’s a whole category of paper airplanes you fly using a piece of cardboard. I’ve flown one for more than a half hour. I’ve only scratched the surface for articulating wings. I’ve got one that flaps, one that flips over and flies upside down, and one that drops a helicopter.
I’m intrigued by the possibility of executing a right turn and then left turn with the same throw, by simply having the wing shape change in flight. It’s theoretically possible, but I don’t have a reliable mockup yet. Another riff on that idea would be a transition from inside to outside loop with the same throw. Imagine the plane climbing into a loop, and then nosing over and returning upside down, all with a gently curved flight path. Again, possible; but yet to be perfected.