Next weekend, the world's paper aviation masters will gather in Salzburg, Germany, for the Red Bull Paper Wings championship. During the two-day event, finalists from 70 countries go nose-to-nose in three categories – longest distance, longest time in the air and aerobatics. This year Guinness World Record holder Ken Blackburn (longest indoor flight) will be a judge in the aerobatics category. For slightly less ambitious paper pilots (read: those of us just looking to impress a six-year-old), Mr. Blackburn offers some pointers on how to improve on the basic paper plane.
Sweat the details
As an aerospace engineer, Ken Blackburn knows a fair bit about how to keep objects in the air. "Almost all of the principles that apply to actual aircraft can also be used for paper planes," he says. When there's a problem, it's best to go back to the beginning. Oftentimes, overeager plane-makers don't take the time to fold cleanly and precisely, which is why so many paper aircrafts come apart mid-flight. Creases should be sharp, which can be achieved by running a ruler or your fingernail along the main folds. Precise symmetry is also important. Even a millimetre off may result in a bumpy flight.
It's all in the arm
The next most important step is mastering takeoff technique (in paper-airplane speak, that's the throw). Similar to a serve in tennis, practice is the only thing that's going to make perfect and it's important to master a smooth and steady motion before trying to add power. Take a few swift paces into the toss with your throwing arm back, then launch your plane at a 45 degree angle. "Aiming slightly up is the most common throwing technique," says Mr. Blackburn, though it's also important to make adjustments based on what works for you. "When I set my world record [his glider was aloft for 27.6 seconds] I did this thing where I leaned my body back and then shot the plane right up into the air."
The wing's the thing
In planes both proper and paper, wings are essential to a swift and smooth flight. On a basic dart model, wings should point slightly upward so that the plane looks like a capital letter Y from behind when the base is being pinched. If your plane is nose-diving, try folding the back edge of the wings up just a bit (in this case, you want the fold to be softer, as opposed to the strong creases described above). "These little folds work the same way as those panels you see on real airplane wings when you look out the window," Mr. Blackburn explains. For the slightly advanced paper pilot looking to master a trick, he suggests folding the back of the wings up even more, which is how you achieve the loop-de-loop trick. "It takes a lot of patience, but once you have a solid toss, it's really just a question of trying, making adjustments and then trying again."
Bring in outside materials
In competition (and in the Guinness Book of Records), anything other than paper, folding know-how and the laws of gravity are forbidden, but for those of us still flying on the amateur circuit, introducing outside materials is a good way to experiment and improve. Adding weight to the front of the plane will result in faster movement. Try taping a penny into the nose or attaching a paper clip. "I used to work at [the American aerospace manufacturer and defence contractor]McDonnell Douglas. At one point we were trying improve a jet model, so we just added a big chunk of lead to the nose, which is basically the same idea," Mr. Blackburn says.
And don't do this: Bother with special paper. Standard letter-size printer paper is perfect.
Special to The Globe and Mail