The Perfect Paper Airplane
Whether you’re making the substitute teacher angry by throwing them around in class or participating in world championship tournaments, the paper airplane is full of possibilities. Most common paper plane designs require nothing more than a single sheet of paper—but sometimes, the practice of creating and building these small wonders of physics can demand a mix of complicated science, numerous materials, and strenuous effort. Let us fill you in on just what it took to craft the very best paper airplane.
John M. Collins, a television producer also known as “The Paper Airplane Guy,” is responsible for designing “Suzanne,” the current Guinness World Records holder for farthest flight by a paper aircraft.
Collins tinkered and tested his airplane design for three years before he and his official thrower, fellow American Joe Ayoob, notched a 226 feet 10 inch throw on February 26, 2012, in a hangar at McClellan Air Force Base in North Highlands, California. Their paper airplane beat the previous record—which stood for nine years—by over 19 feet, with the added handicap of having the officially sanctioned run-up distance cut from 30 feet to 10 feet. Though the two definitively shattered the record, Collins claims that he and Ayoob have unofficially thrown the design up to 240 feet in practice without a Guinness Book of World Records observer present.
The Dynamics of Flight
Common paper airplanes basically follow some of the same physics as their bigger, non-paper counterparts, and function based on four different aeronautical concepts that include lift, weight, drag, and thrust. The first two are the most obvious: lift describes the force generated by the plane going upward, while the weight is the earth’s gravitational pull that forces the plane downward.
An airplane’s drag is the backward resistant force obstructing an object from moving forward. A thinner design works best for paper airplanes because it fundamentally creates less material to drag the plane, while thicker designs will create more resistant force to impede the plane’s flight.
Lastly, the thrust is any force that propels the plane forward. On regular aircraft, the thrust is provided by propellers, which motor the plane on a sustained course; paper airplanes, of course, get their thrust from a throw.
As with most flying machines, a paper airplane is most effective while maintaining a balance of these four concepts, and it is also usually effective in one of two basic designs: Triangular styles like the Suzanne are sturdy and outfitted for the best possible initial thrust, while rectangular shaped paper planes cover more area which allow for farther gliding distances. Nevertheless, the Suzanne is still considered a glider, and is the first such paper plane to hold the Guinness record for distance. “Previous distance marks were set by planes that were basically sticks with fins," Collins tells mental_floss. "Suzanne is a huge departure, and frankly, I don’t believe a ballistics dart will ever hold the record again. We may have put the mark out of reach for that kind of throw.”
Which is a good point, because all this shape business means nothing unless you have the proper thrust, which depends on the proper grip. To throw a paper plane far, firmly grip the paper towards the middle—but not too tight! If you throw it from your right hand and you find your plane veering right, Collins suggests moving your thumb down lower on the plane for your next throw (and vice versa for lefties). Your thumb movement easily changes the angle at which the plane is released, which makes for longer flights. Any erratic up and down movement from your plane can be also easily fixed by bending the rear flap of the paper where the wings meet the center of the plane upwards or downwards. After testing out your plane and adjusting these various factors, you should be ready for some extreme distance.
Building the Suzanne
If you want to give the Suzanne a shot, you definitely need to do some prep work. In The New World Champion Paper Airplane Book, Collins lists a bone folder, a snack clip for pressing the folds, scotch tape, a metric ruler, a pair of scissors, an X-Acto knife, a protractor, and A4-sized paper as the materials needed to make his record breaker. He even recommends Conqueror CX22 Diamond White stock as the best paper to make the plane—a process that involves 35 separate and intricate steps. Follow the video above to build it for yourself, and check out Collins's YouTube channel for tutorials on other paper airplanes.
Other Record Breakers
Paper airplanes are serious business, especially when it comes to breaking records. Some other official Guinness records for paper planes including Takuo Toda from Japan, whose toss on December 19, 2010, carries the record for the longest duration for a paper aircraft flight at 29.2 seconds. A recent record is the most paper aircraft made in five minutes by a team, which stands at 2401 planes folded by the Volkswagen Financial Service at Forum of Assago in Milan, Italy on December 13, 2013. The record for most paper aircraft launched simultaneously belongs to Realizar Impact Marketing and Portuguese soccer team FC Porto, whose fans launched a whopping 12,672 planes at the same time at Dragao Stadium in Porto, Portugal on November 2, 2007.
But the weirdest—and let’s face it, most braggable—paper plane record belongs to thrower Bipin Larkin and catcher Ashrita Furman (both Americans), who earned the record for most paper aircraft caught by mouth in one minute with 17 planes (!) on March 15, 2013, in New York City.
The towering achievement, however, remains the farthest flight held by Collins and Ayoob. Their mix of tinkering and innovation with something as potentially simple as a paper airplane showed just how much a little science can go a long way. Collins hopes that kids who see his paper airplane come away with the sense that they can easily do science. “It doesn’t take computers, lab coats, microscopes and the like," he says. "It takes a hunger to know. Science is just the structured way we find stuff out. The science you can do with a simple sheet of paper is no less important than what can be done with an electron microscope."