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On February 26, 2012, my paper airplane design, Suzanne, flying 226 feet and 10 inches, broke the old paper airplane world record for distance by 19 feet and 6 inches. It’s fair to say that Joe Ayoob, my thrower, and I shattered it. The old mark had stood for nine years. Joe and I had made better distances in the six prior practices, but then, that’s what makes record breaking so interesting. A record during practice isn’t a record. It’s not official until declared so under the specific guidelines during a sanctioned attempt.
Records are made to be broken. It’s the whole reason for having them. The goal, the chase, the falling short, and the trying again are all required components of a record attempt. This record was no different. I tried many models over a three-year period when I was “officially” working on breaking the record. Of course, the truth is, every great distance plane I ever made was step toward this goal. My hope is that your world-record journey starts, or continues, here. Helping someone else break this record is another of my goals. Perhaps it will be you.
Believing you can do it is the first step. Making something as sophisticated as a flying machine from the most modest of resources is the beginning of an adventure. Where does it lead? Using less to make more is where we have to go as a planet. Eventually we’ll find a way to use less energy to light a room, less fuel to move from home to job, and make less pollution from powering the world. Viewed from this perspective, the answers seem obvious: conservation—yes, creating new products and technologies—yes, doing less—no, doing more with less—yes. And we’re back to paper airplanes.
I’m frequently asked what advice I have for budding paper pilots. Oddly, I’m usually at a loss. Folding comes so naturally for me, I can’t imagine not making paper airplanes. It’s taken me years to figure out that not everyone is like this. It’s true that some people might actually need encouragement. After giving this due consideration, I’ve come up with the following suggestion.
If you’ve never been to a Maker Faire, find one and go. It’s a celebration of making things—all kinds of things—from tiny robots to clothes to giant sculptures of steel and stone, and yes, sometimes paper airplanes. Making things is part of who we are as Americans and who we are as humans. From the biological imperative to make more people to the need to know who made that cake, we’re hardwired to like the whole idea.
As a kid, I liked making toys. My brothers and I would make spinning tops from wooden spools, rubber-band guns using spring-loaded clothes pins as the triggers, parachutes from napkins and string, rubber-band powered boats, kites, balsa-wood planes, and yes, paper airplanes.
Sadly, making things has been largely lost as part of our culture. Toys now need to “do something” so that even playing with the thing is optional. In my view, this is a huge mistake. We are robbing ourselves of a very important experience: experimenting, exploring, creating—in short, making things.
Paper airplanes embody the scientific method. Every throw is an experiment. It’s a hobby that begs the paper pilot to understand ever more in order to excel. Hypothesis, experiment design, trial, and results—it’s all built into every plane and every throw. To play with a paper airplane is to dabble in science, whether you know it or not.
We have a number of global issues confronting us. Global energy shortages, food shortages, water shortages, and something people are calling global warming are all worrisome. These problems will have answers that only science can provide. We have no spare brains on the planet. We need everyone thinking about these challenges in a rigorous way.
Imagine this: a world of people playing with science, who get up every morning, focus on what’s good, and imagine how to make more of that. You can call me a dreamer. I don’t mind. You don’t have to believe a word of what I say. Just make a paper airplane and experience how exhilarating that feels. We’re born makers. When you make something, anything from a pie to a pencil drawing, it’s like waking a dormant part of you. The world shifts slightly. You can feel it, and it feels good.
Suzanne, the world-record paper airplane, boasts a series of firsts: the first glider to hold the distance record, the first paper airplane to use changing airspeed to enhance performance, the first plane to use a thrower/designer team, and the first plane to break the record after the run-up-to-throw distance was shortened from 30 to 10 feet. It is a truly amazing aircraft. I believe Suzanne changes the way distance records will be broken in the future. The days of brute-force darts are gone, replaced by the age of true gliders.
A little free advice: take nothing for granted. Suzanne is a great aircraft. I didn’t find the design hiding in someone else’s work. I created it by working hard, listening closely, and observing keenly. You probably possess these skills too. This plane is only one of many possible solutions to the challenge. You may discover others.
Fold an extra plane for me, and perhaps I’ll meet you in the winner’s circle.