July 22, 2015

Powered By Imagination: A look into the history of the paper airplane


charter-jet-paper-airplane-kidYou might’ve made one as a kid – during playtime or even as one of your science class’s better hands-on experiments. You could make one while you’re on hold during what seems like the world’s longest conference call, or you could make them for a friendly contest during a teambuilding exercise. It’s unpretentious yet elegant and costs pennies to make – or it’s free if you snag a sheet of paper from the copy machine. Paper airplanes have captivated imaginations for years with a simple idea: what if you could create something that could fly from a single sheet of paper?

On its surface, paper airplanes seem to stem from the art of origami, or folded paper. Paper was invented in China around 100 A.D., and made its way to Japan in the sixth century. Because of paper’s high cost at the time, paper folding was mostly used for religious ceremonies. As time passed and materials became more inexpensive, origami became a more common pastime in Japan and paper gliders, like kites, became popular in Japan and China.

Paper airplanes have been used by visionaries to test theories of flying devices on smaller scales. Da Vinci wrote of creating paper models of his ornithopter, or flying device with flapping wings. Sir George Cayley, who discovered the four aerodynamic forces of flight (weight, lift, drag and thrust), used linen model gliders in his tests. Sir Cayley paved the way for the Wright brothers to use small model airplanes in wind tunnels to assess their theories almost a hundred years later, in the events leading to the first flight at Kitty Hawk.

A 1949 issue of Boys’ Life features an article on the Flying Wing, then considered ‘today’s most unconventional plane,’ cites an afternoon of ‘sailing paper planes of the sort any schoolboy makes’ as the impetus for the plane’s creation. Jack Northrop, an engineer of Lockheed Aircraft Manufacturing Company and later founder of the Northrop Corporation, had spent a rainy weekend with friends and an impromptu paper airplane contest sprung up, leading him to experiment with a tilted wing design. These early models allowed Northrop to continue his earlier research into a tailless ‘all-wing plane.’ The approach is considered an inspiration for the Northrop B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.

Today, paper airplanes are a seemingly universal toy – celebrated by online tutorials, used in designs for clothing and textiles, and even the subject of clubs. One such club, the Japan Origami Airplanes Association, has members who hold the Guiness Book of World Records for duration of flight (Takuo Toda, at 29.2 seconds, up from his previous record of 27.9 seconds) and paper airplane accuracy (Fumihiro Uno, who threw a paper airplane into a bucket 13 consecutive times from 3 meters away).

This year, Red Bull reintroduced its Red Bull Paper Wings paper airplane contest. The contest includes categories for longest distance, longest airtime and aerobatics. Planes were  built on site with officially provided paper, following strict instructions: the distance and airtime categories do not allow any additional material to be used, and the paper can only be folded. Finalists were be selected from events across the country, with Veselin Ivanov crowned the winner at the World Finals in Salzburg, Austria this May. Hopeful contestants will perfect their folding skills before 2018, when the next competition will be held.

Whether it’s a stress-relieving hobby or a way to test your next great flying invention, paper airplanes are a fun way to pass an afternoon. Celebrate National Paper Airplane Day (June 21, in case it’s not already on your calendar) with a contest of your own!

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