Flying airplanes for a living

By Denise LiEvents - 06 September 2010 2:44 PM | Updated 14 September 2010

Flying airplanes for a living

Meet John Collins, more affectionately known as the Paper Airplane Guy. He’s been making paper airplanes for almost 40 years now has got it down to a science (and an art). Having inspired people all over the world to start making their own paper airplanes, this is definitely not just child’s play (don’t miss Collins’ workshops this week).


How did your interest in making paper airplanes begin? 

It has always seemed like a good idea. It did take learning some origami technique to upgrade my planes. After studying what was possible with paper folding, my paper airplane making took a leap forward. Having a notion about a shape or design became easier to realize. Moving layers to manipulate the center of gravity became possible. The whole concept of making high performance paper airplanes from pure folding seemed very clear. One piece of paper and some folding is really all one needs to make a great paper airplane.


What is it about making paper airplanes that fascinates you? 

After decades of inventing new designs, I'm still intrigued by what's possible. I've just recently figured out how to reliably fold a curved lifting surface. It happened quite accidentally as I was attempting to fold an eagle head on a paper airplane. Complex flight patterns are theoretically possible with articulating wings that rely on changes in air pressure or speed to actuate. I've scratched the surface there with my Bat Plane and Boomerang II. There are still huge challenges to be met; such as a right and left turn with a single throw. The ability to transition from outside loop to inside loop, or the concept of asymmetrical wings transitioning from wing tip forward to center forward, are concepts yet to be folded and flown.


Tell us more about your book The Gliding Flight.

The Gliding Flight was a labor of love.  My goal was to pack as much value as possible into a single volume of folded planes. I put flip-through animations in the margins to show more difficult origami moves. I put simplified flight theory into the book. At the time I was putting together that book, I had no idea that I'd write another book and have the chance to travel the US or the world showing off my planes. I was simply hoping to sell a lot of books. It's been a slow and steady path since 1989, the initial publishing date. About five years ago, at a big San Francisco Bay Area event, someone told me that they had grown up making my paper airplanes. For a moment, I thought, "That's not possible". Then I did the math. It was not only possible, it was probable. That was both a comforting and frightening thought. I had a book that had survived that long. And I had written a book that long ago. I don't feel old enough to have done either one of those things, but I have. 


How do people react when you tell them that one of your jobs is to make paper airplanes? Do they laugh in your face and how do you react to this? 

Maybe it's living in a place with a really wide range of accepted normal, but most people are intrigued. Even outside of San Francisco, I encounter more curiosity than derision. Paper airplanes are a universal touchstone. Everyone has made one. It's only a matter of degree. I've simply stayed in touch with something most people pick up and put down very quickly. There's always something most people carry from their youth into adulthood. My baggage just happens to be paper airplanes.




You've been to Singapore on two occasions in 2008 and 2009 by invitation from the Singapore Science Centre. What are your impressions of Singapore? 

I like Singapore. The people seem to have a really good bead on reality, geo-politics, and their place in the region. I was really ignorant about Singapore before my first visit. For instance, I was surprised to learn English was the official language. Of course, I was relieved on one level and almost disappointed on another. Singapore was much less foreign than I had imagined.


The food is excellent, the people friendly, the shopping extravagant, and the paper airplane flying is always a challenge because of humidity. This is actually my fourth trip, and I have to admit that it's somewhat habit forming. Perhaps it's the Science Centre environment, but I really have a fondness for Singapore I can't fully explain. There's a hunger for the new, a reverence for tradition, and seriousness of purpose that I find fascinating. I'll keep coming back as long as I'm invited.


One of your upcoming challenges is to break both the records for distance and duration for the Guinness Book of Records. How are you preparing for this? 

The first challenge was to find a suitable space. The distance record is now in excess of 200 feet, nearly 70 meters. Duration is close to 29 seconds. For either effort, one needs a very large indoor space. I'm now working with a company that rents space at the NASA Ames research facility at Moffett Field. Airship Adventures moors a blimp there. They've agreed to allow me to visit for practice sessions. I'm also partnering with a local college athlete to throw planes. My arm was never really strong enough to throw something, anything, 200 feet; so I'm bringing in someone who knows how to throw. The planes have had to be re-designed to match his particular throwing style. Joe Ayoob is an American Football quarterback. That means he can throw a football very hard and very far. In working with other quarterbacks, I realized that their power comes chiefly during the last moment of their throw and from their index finger. I've designed a notch in my planes to take advantage of that. Our very first practice session with the prototype planes got us 80% of the way there. There are a number of obvious refinements that should take us the last 20%. The biggest question was matching the design to the throwing technique, and I think I've accomplished that. The rest is simply practice. I have high hopes that this time next year, you'll have to add world record holder to my title.





What is the most memorable thing that a fan has done for or said to you? 

Almost always, there's one adult that confides that they've never made a successful paper airplane until they attended my programme. That is really gratifying. Clearly it's something they've always wanted to do, and now they can. It's not world peace, or curing cancer; but it's what I can do. That always feels good.


What else do you enjoy doing in your spare time? 

This will sound really dull, but I really enjoy spending time with my wife. We have one of those rare marriages where we just don't get tire of each other. I'm really a lucky guy. I'm also addicted to windsurfing. Addiction is such a loaded word, but I really don't feel quite right if I miss too many windy weekends in a row during the summer. When you consider that a windsurfing sail is a vertically mounted wing on a surfboard, that starts to make more sense. I also like boomerangs. I have a quad-line kite called a "Revolution" that's shaped like a bow tie that I really enjoy flying.  


What is the one important fundamental point that anyone should take note of when they are making their own basic paper airplane?

Neatness counts.  Clean, accurate creases are essential. Keep the trailing edges pristine; that's the rear of the plane. It's obvious after you consider this, but the air leaves the trailing edges last, and therefore is deflected most significantly by those surfaces. Small bends or wrinkles there make a gigantic difference in the way your paper airplane will fly. Anyone can fold a plane, but not everyone knows that adjusting is the secret to a great flight. 


John Collins will be in Singapore to promote the Singapore Amazing Flying Machine Challenge 2011 and will be holding public workshops at the Science Centre from September 7 to 10. Workshops are free to the public but usual Science Centre admission ticket charges apply.