John Collins – The Paper Airplane Guy (#79)


John broke the world record for paper aircraft distance in 2012; a record he still holds. Author of four books of original designs, John has been called the world’s foremost expert on paper airplanes. His planes are recognized around the globe, and one was featured in the movie “Paper Planes”. His books have been translated into German, Russian, Chinese and Japanese. His designs are routinely found at the Red Bull Paper Wings World Finals.

Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?

Last year, I had the chance to speak with two people who had worked on a new kind of aircraft called “The Prandtl Wing”. One was a chief scientist for NASA, and the other was the lead remote control test pilot.  It was thrilling to learn about their approach and how it was inspired by asking basic questions about the flight of birds.  What they asked was why birds don’t need a vertical stabilizer.  What they found was that, in a turn, birds produce proverse yaw, instead of adverse yaw (drag acting against the direction of the intended turn—normal for airplanes). This breakthrough could lead to a huge jump in conventional aircraft efficiency. Their work was happening around the same time I was developing my dynamic dihedral idea.  When I explained what I was doing, they both said their recent experiments verified my conjecture about airspeed and airflow on my paper airplane.  That made my day.


Tell me about your journey to become ‘The Paper Airplane Guy’

I’ve been making paper airplanes from the age of nine.  After taking the folding about as far as I could, I discovered origami.  After studying that art form for more than a decade, I was able to bring those tools to paper airplane making.  The idea was to create a collection of high performance planes, using only paper—no cutting, glue, tape, or added weight.  The first tangible result was my first published collection of planes called, “The Gliding Flight”.  You can tell this book was named before search engines were a thing.  It was published in 1989.  Shortly after, I started doing science enrichment programs for libraries and schools; basically anyone that would let me show up.  On those occasions when a security guard or office manager would pick up the phone and let someone know I had arrived, they would say something like, “…the paper airplane guy is here.”  The title grew out of what people were organically calling me.  Of course, now I make a living throwing paper airplanes for worldwide audiences, keynotes, corporate events, schools and libraries.

Everything shifted in a crazy and great way after I broke the world record for distance.  I like to say that I’ve finally gone beyond being the crazy guy who throws paper airplanes; now I’m eccentric.  I have the best job in the world.  I throw paper airplanes for a living.


What skills are needed to fold and fly paper airplanes?

Two key skills are patience and a keen eye for detail.  There are tons of good paper airplane designs out there in books, so being able to invent your own plane really isn’t required.  It does take some patience to learn to crease properly and accurately.  Learning a few origami tricks takes some patience.  Looking at your plane with a critical eye is really important.  I tell kids you have to lawyer against your work; pick it apart, be ruthless.  Make sure one side is a mirror image of the other.  Make sure the plane is sharply creased. Make sure all the surfaces are straight and flat.  All of that takes careful observation.  You can learn to throw and adjust, just like learning to fold properly.

Folding paper airplanes will have a virtuous feedback loop.  You’ll gain these skills as you go along and your planes will just get better and better.  Paper folding also helps with memorization, direction following, small motor skills and 3D visualization.  Manipulatives, in general, are great learning tools.


How do you go about setting a Guinness world record? What work went into record?

Let me start by saying that it was way harder than I anticipated.  What I thought would happen, is kind of what people assume I did.  I thought I would bring in a strong arm to throw an existing design, well beyond the old record.  What happened on that first practice day was surprising and humbling.  When someone who can really throw hard lets loose of a paper airplane at 90mph, bad things start happening to most paper airplanes right away.  What works at 40mph gets warped, twisted, or sometimes ripped in half at 90mph.  What I thought was a slam-dunk turned into a three-year journey through three throwers, five practice locations, two basic designs, countless configuration changes and two official attempts.  I worked with Joe Ayoob, the co-record holder, for the final 18 months.  Getting the plane design and adjustments to match his throwing technique mattered a lot.  Paper choice was a big key.  And of course, the final adjusting of the dihedral angle over the length of the plane gave us a critical lift to drag advantage.  People always ask what is it about the plane that makes it the world record plane?  It’s everything.  The precision with which I fold it, the design, the throw, the temperature and humidity in the room, the altitude of the facility, and a lot more.  It’s like asking an astrophysicist what makes Earth so special.  The easiest answer is everything.

Every time we hit a major obstacle, we were able to turn it into an opportunity.  That was a huge learning experience for me.  We began to see the process in terms of generating results; not success or failure.  When you can back up, and look at an effort as creating data, I think you’re more likely to see new paths and have new ideas.  Failure feels debilitating.  Creating data feels liberating.  How you view the project can make a huge difference in the ability to sustain the energy required to prevail.


Do you have a favourite design? And do you have a future dream design?

That’s like asking do I have a favorite child.  Do you have a favorite child?  Would you admit that?  I’m working on a duration (time aloft) concept.  I can’t say much about it right now, but it would be as big a difference between darts (the old distance planes) and my glider design, when you compare what I’m doing with other duration paper airplanes.


You present talks featuring a host of demonstrations of your weird and wonderful creations, as a fellow presenter I’m keen to know how you prepare and deliver a show where the planes perform perfectly on cue? I can imagine a lot of trial and error went into getting this right.

The presentation has evolved over the 30 years or so I’ve been doing it.  I used to be more willing to put in a design that would sometimes fail.  I have this helicopter egress plane that loops and dumps a paper helicopter from about 12 feet (or more).  It’s spectacular when it works.  You can test it before the show a bunch of times.  But it sits on the table and changes a bit while waiting its turn to fly.  It seemed to fail on the first try a lot, so I pulled it out of the lineup.  Other planes can be a bit fickle, but I’m always working on ways to make them more consistent.  Everything from the way I travel with them, to unpacking them, to arriving at the venue really early to test them; all of that matters.  It’s kind of crazy to attempt to fly 24 paper aircraft, all of which have to perform really well on the first try, in front of a live audience.  It’s quite a challenge, and it’s very technical in nature.  It’s important to the flow of the presentation that none of the difficulty is obvious.  The focus has to be on the science and the wonder.

So, it’s a little like being the world’s worst magician.  I do the trick, and then spend time explaining the physics behind the fun.  My concept is to show an audience at least a half dozen ideas they’ve not seen.  Then I try to demystify what looks impossible.  The larger goal is to hook people on the physics of flight and give them confidence in the process of science; which is simply a structured way to find stuff out.  The process of science is the human race’s best invention.


Why is failure so important to you?

When I was teaching my son how to windsurf, I used to say, “If you’re not falling, you’re not learning.”  You can stay dry out there once you master a couple of basic skills, but if you want to learn to gybe or water start, be ready to get wet.  Pushing yourself to the limits and beyond is going to involve unexpected results at every level of discovery and progress.

The important concept is that you actually have to stop and decide to declare failure.  You have to cease and say, “I can’t learn any more.  There’s no path forward.  Therefore, I’ve failed.” As long as you don’t do that, you’re still on a path to your goal.  That’s why falling short can be seen as a stopping point or a learning point.  At every turn, we looked at the results as learning opportunities.  We tried that; now we can check that one off the list. Believe me, there were plenty of chances to quit.  There were times that quitting made more sense than continuing, based upon what we knew.  We kept trying anyway.  What we managed to do is not particularly significant; the record for paper airplane distance won’t have much impact on society at large.  The way we did it matters more.  We changed the way that record will have to be broken going forward.  We made people look at that competition differently.  If we hadn’t dared to “fail” we couldn’t have prevailed.


Play is often viewed as childish, why should we play more? And how can adults play better?

Play has “failure” built in.  We say “just playing around” when someone is inviting failure.  Sometimes we let “the creative people” get away with “playing with the idea” but that really means we’ll accept a bunch of dud ideas if they come up with a homerun.  What play does is open up possibilities.  When you watch a toddler play with the box rather than the toy, what you’re seeing is a profound choice.  They’d rather have an open-ended experience.  The box can be a car, a building, a secret cave, or pirate’s chest.  Whatever the toy is (a car, plane, or doll) looks like a closed loop to a toddler.  It’s that, and nothing more.  We get trained over time, to like the toy more.

I’ve pitched toy makers ideas, and the question I hear back is, “What does the toy do when the child isn’t playing with it?” Who knew that the toy should be able to play with itself, making the child a redundant component? So much for just about every toy I loved as a kid.

Play allows for the idea of growth through overcoming obstacles.  Part of the process is not getting the desired result on the first try.  This is why kids will master a video game faster than adults.  They’re not afraid to play the game a bunch of times.  They have no “prestige” to lose.  They’re just kids.  Adults get hung up about looking silly or dumb.  We lose the ability to play because it gets beaten out of us through real or perceived humiliation.  Getting laughed at feels bad.  We’d rather not play, if losing feels that bad.

So, we decide failure, or the threat of failure, outweighs the pleasures waiting just beyond a few bad outcomes.  What a terrible thing to learn.  And yet, we can’t seem to wait to teach other people, every day, in an infinite number of ways, what the price of play can be.  We extol the virtues of the creative thinkers, the ones who break the mold.  We probably should even more than we do.  All the inertia is the other way—follow the directions, color inside the lines, this is how things work, that’s just the way it is… pick your poison.  Play is the way out of that prison for your mind.


What’s missing from what we teach in schools?

Just let teachers do their jobs, and pay them more money.  I mean seriously, we train these folks really well and then keep them from working in specific ways that would generate better outcomes.  Every teacher of the year will tell you how they managed to overcome the teaching standards.  They all feel shackled by standardized testing, and memorization drills.  If homework really worked, we would lead the world in outcomes.  We don’t.  In a good system, the teacher of the year would simply tell you they didn’t do anything special; they just had a good bunch of kids.  That’s never the story.  They literally have to find a way to cheat the design of the system.

In general, more manipulatives, more project based learning, less homework, and fewer kids per classroom.  The teachers can take if from there.


Where do you think are sense of wonder comes from and how can we cultivate it?

Computers have made just about anything you can dream of possible to create on a screen.  Dinosaurs wandering around an amusement park, space aliens, inter-galactic travel, demons and angels; it’s all been in movies and video games.  So, it’s harder to cultivate wonder when teams of professionals are cooking up vats of the stuff daily and ladling it out constantly.   When you break away from the electronic world and interact with the physical world; walk, ride a bike, swim, or just let a breeze blow past you; the emotion of that is different.

When you challenge yourself to build something, you start to understand the rudiments of engineering in a new way.  How many fasteners are needed?  How thick does the structural element need to be?  Can I trade weight for a shorter lifespan?  How much voltage is too much?  What the heck are amps?  How do I get from software to physical actuators?  Every step has wonder built in; along with the chance of “failure” and the exhilaration of success.

Experiencing the forces of nature in person can create a sense of wonder about how all of that fits and works together.  To personally see how scattered and chaotic the planet appears to be, and then starting to understand that even a hurricane has a purpose (redistributing heat energy) is a moving and wondrous moment.  Seeing ourselves as a part of, or at least connected to the larger web of life, is powerful.  To watch a caterpillar become a butterfly should create a sense of wonder in anyone.  To see anything being born is to connect with all living things.  Once a person is connected to the world in that way, going back to the electronic realm can be a journey of wonder.  Every act of creation can generate a sense of wonder once grounded with the ability to see the miracle.  A clever piece of code, an amazing painting, great architecture, beautiful music—they all come from the same impossibly complex mechanism.  Someone had an idea.  Where do those come from?  Turns out, they’re simultaneously remarkably common and rarely pursued.

See John in action in this WIRED interview and demonstration…

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What stood out for you? Any questions? Things you disagree with? Write a comment and join in the discussion.

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