Interesting Facts Learned from John Collins, "The Paper Airplane Guy"

By Norman Chan

You've watched the video, now here are some interesting things we learned from our chat with John.

By now, you may have watched our chat with John Collins, the self-proclaimed "Paper Airplane Guy." And it seems like you guys liked it, too! We first saw John at the Bay Area Maker Faire a few years ago, where he was surrounded by a group of wide-eyed attendees, watching him keep a lightweight airplane afloat by walking behind it with a piece of cardboard in his hands. It was one of those "holy crap" moments that you couldn't help but stop whatever you were doing and walk over to watch, which is why John immediately came to mind when we were thinking of local makers to profile for the site. John's enthusiasm and expertise in his craft definitely comes across in the video--we certainly didn't expect to hear John talk about laminar flow and Bernoulli's principle in the context of paper airplanes the way he did. But hey, the guy did serve time as a teacher before making paper airplanes for a living.

I wanted to share some of the interesting takeaways we learned from our meeting with John, including some insights into the design of the world record-breaking design.

  • One of the most important principles of paper airplane design is the dihedral angle between the wings and body of the plane. Positive dihedral angle (wings angled up) creates a stabilizing effect so a plane rocks back and forth along its center during flight, keeping it up in the air longer.
  • Negative dihedral angle destabilizes the plane (often on purpose), so the plane can perform circular swoops. This is what you see when John throws a plane like a boomerang and it loops and returns to his hand.
  • Plane can actually have different dihedral angles along the wing for different effects. For example, the world record-breaking design has wings curved at a greater angle near the rear of the plane for stabilizing when air passes around it at a certain speed.
  • The world record breaking design only has eight folds, but also uses very small strips of tape, as is allowed by Guinness. The tape not only helped fixate folds, but added a little extra weight to the overall plane. Every little bit counts!
  • Wing size is important as well--smaller wings lend to faster planes that dart across the room, while wider wings let planes glide more elegantly.
  • For the world record-breaking flight, John worked with Football quarterback Joe Ayoob for 18 months to train for the throw. The airplane is actually calibrated for the thrower--tweaked a little bit to compensate for minute differences in the way each person throws. John estimates that Joe was throwing at only 90-95% strength for this design, focusing on accuracy and consistency over brute force.
  • The previous world record design was more of a dart, and flew in a parabola--straight up and straight down. John's design flies up and then swoops down for an extended glided landing.
  • The type of paper used in the world-record breaking design also mattered, and was discovered by accident. Not only is it 26 pound paper, its texture is perfect for the design. Changing paper types increased Joe's throw by 30 feet, but decreased a typical person's throw by about 30 feet as well.
  • When you're folding a plane, symmetry is very important. Making one mistake when folding one wing isn't the end of the world--just tweak the other wing to it's folded in the same way.

I encourage you to check out John's site and watch the videos on his YouTube channel. We'll have more with John on the site later this week.