Chicagoland's Only Aviation Museum

Special Museum Programs for Schools

The World Record Paper Airplane

Excerpts From The World Paper Airplane Book By Ken Blackburn and Jeff Lammers and Super Wings by Peter Clemens

On February 17, 1994 in an American Airlines hanger at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport with a 200 foot, 100 million dollar DC-10 aircraft as a backdrop, Key Blackburn, an aero-space engineer for McDonnell Douglas, set the paper airplane duration record at 18.8 seconds for the Guinness Book of World Records, a record that still stands today. On that same date Tony Fleltch set the paper airplane distance record at nearly 200 feet.

Why Do Airplanes Fly?

Paper airplane operate on the same principle as real airplanes. Both are controlled by four basic forces: Lift, Gravity, Thrust and Drag. These forces act the same way on a bird, flying squirrel, or butterfly. Everything that flies is affected by these forces.

Basic Forces

THRUST: The force that moves the aircraft forward through the air counteracting the force of Drag. LIFT: Air flowing over and under the wing creates lift which counteracts the force of Weight.
DRAG: The force of aircraft acts like an anchor to slow the airplane down. Drag is created by lift and the act of moving the air out of the way as the aircraft moves forward. WEIGHT: The force gravity on the aircraft that constantly pulls the aircraft towards the ground.

Gravity vs. Lift

Gravity is the force that try's to pull all objects back to earth, while lift keeps objects in the air. As an airplane flies, its wings are angles with the front edges higher than the back edges. This causes the air going over the top of the wings to speed up slightly as it gets sucked downward across the wing. The air traveling under the wing slows down a bit as it get shoved by the bottom of the wing. This speeding up and slowing down of the sir is what creates lift. When air speeds up its pressure is reduced, and when the air slows down its pressure is increased. Therefore, the air that speeds up over the wing creates a slight suction which pulls upward on the wing. At the same time, the air below the wing creates extra pressure which pushes upward on the wing. Lift is a combination of these two forces. During level flight both lift and gravity (weight) are balanced (pulling equally). If lift pulls harder than gravity, the plane begins to climb, if gravity pulls harder the plane begins to descend. So lift and gravity tug up and down on an airplane.

Drag vs. Thrust

Drag and thrust on the other hand are pulling an airplane forward and aft. Drag pulls back on an airplane and slows it down. Most drag comes from air resistance. Much the same resistance as you feel walking against the wind on a windy day. Thrust is the force that moves something forward through the air. Real airplanes get their thrust from a propeller or a jet engine. Paper airplanes get thrust from your arm. A throw or thrust also gives your paper airplane it's initial speed.

Elevators and Rudders

Adjusting the elevators or pitch is the most important thing you can do to prevent your plane from diving or "stalling". The elevator is a horizontal section of the plan , normally the back edge of the wing or the tail. Bending the elevator up or down changes how high or low the airplane flies. If a paper airplane climbs, slows, then dives, it has stalled and one of two things is wrong. You may have thrown the airplane upward with too much speed, or the elevator is bent up too much. Fix this by bending the elevator down just a little. If the plane flies too slowly and you want it to fly faster, bend the elevator down.

Most paper airplanes will have a tendency to veer to the left or the right when they are first thrown. They can be adjusted using the back end of your paper airplane or the rudder which is used to steer much the same as a rudder on a boat. Before adjusting the rudder, make sure the wing tips of your airplane lie above the airplane body so the wings form a "Y" shape with the body, this allows the plane to respond properly to the rudder. If your plane turns to the right, bend the rudder to the left. If the airplane turns to the left, bend the rudder to the right.

Secrets of a Perfect Flight

One key element to making a record breaking paper airplane is in the fold. Use your fingernail or the flat side of a pencil to make a sharp crease. Keep your wing surface flat and smooth. This is called an airfoil or the shape of the wing when you look at it from the side. Adjust your wings so both wing tips are a little above the body in that "Y" shape mentioned earlier and avoid warped wings, it is necessary to get both wing angles the same. Do not bend the elevator areas straight up or down, just bend them a little. When you've finished with your adjustments and are ready to launch your plane be sure to hold the fuselage or center of the plane near the front. Then move your whole arm forward and let go, throw gently but firmly. Do not throw the plane straight up into the air instead make sure that the nose is pointed slightly down, instead of straight ahead.

Good Luck and Happy Flying

Please call (630) 466-0888 about booking a tour or educational presentation.


Air Classics Museum of Aviation
43W624 US Route 30
Sugar Grove, IL 60554
Phone: (630) 466-0888


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