Brief History of Paper Airplanes

Boy preparing to fly paper airplane

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In your quest to fold the perfect paper airplane, you might find yourself wondering about this history of this popular pastime.

Most historians believe that the Chinese were the first to build paper aircraft. Since they are credited as the early inventors of paper, it does seem logical that they would be the first ones to find a creative use for the substance.

In France, during the 1700s, the Montgovier brothers used paper to make hot-air balloons. In 1783, they made the first human-carrying hot-air balloon from a paper-lined cloth.

Leonardo da Vinci wrote that he used parchment paper to build models of his ornithopter (helicopter).

The Wright brothers are said to have used paper planes as part of their research into building the first human-carrying airplane. Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first successful airplane flight on December 17, 1903.

During the 1930s, Jack Northrop used paper airplane models to test the aerodynamics of larger aircraft for the Lockheed Corporation.

The history of paper airplanes becomes very interesting during World War II. Because of rationing, it was no longer possible to make toys from plastic or metal. Paper, however, was widely available for children's toys.

Some of the most popular paper airplanes during this time were designed by Wallis Rigby. Rigby was an Englishman who moved to the United States in the 1930s. He published his models as books or box sets, although some were printed in the Sunday newspaper as part of the comic section. Many of the models had rather bizarre color schemes, however, due to the shortage of ink at the time. Rigby's designs had a "tab and slot" construction and are prized as collector's items today.

In 1944, General Mills had a promotion that offered to send children two paper airplane models in exchange for two Wheaties box tops and five cents. There were 14 models in the series, including WWII fighter airplanes such as the Curtiss P-40 Flying Tiger, the Supermarine Spitfire, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, and the German Focke-Wulf.

Modern technology has affected the hobby of making paper airplanes. As Computer Aided Design (CAD) software became cheaper and easier to use, it was possible for an amateur to create amazingly sophisticated plane designs to share with others via the Internet. There are also paper airplane electric powered conversion kits that will transform your paper airplane into a free flight electric airplane.

Unlike the paper airplane fans during WWII, today's paper airplane folders no longer limit themselves to making replicas of actual aircraft. For example, Star Wars fans have taken paper airplane making to a new level by using their origami skills to make paper models of the spacecraft from the film franchise. "Star Wars Folded Flyers" by Benjamin Harper and "Star Wars Origami" by Chris Alexander are two examples of books that teach people how to make these models.

Folders with a competitive streak have attempted to set various records for paper airplane flying. In March 2012, Joe Ayoob, a former college quarterback, flew a paper airplane 226 feet, 10 inches to break the previous "Guinness World Records" flight by Stephen Kreiger in 2003. Krieger flew his paper airplane 207 feet, four inches. However, Ayoob's record-setting was the result of a partnership between him and John Collins, a producer at KRON-TV in San Francisco. Collins designed the airplane that Ayoob used but told members of the press that he did not have the necessary arm strength to challenge the world record.

The record for the longest paper airplane flight belongs to Ken Blackburn. He set the record in 1983 at 16.89 seconds but was not happy to let this achievement stand. He reset the record in 1987 at 17.2 seconds and again at 1994 with 18.8 seconds. He lost the record briefly but reclaimed the honor in 1998 with a 27.6-second flight done at the Georgia Dome. Blackburn works as an aeronautical engineer at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and has written several books on folding paper airplanes. His personal website is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in paper airplanes.

In addition to experimenting with how far and how long they can throw a paper airplane, various people have set records for the size of their paper aircraft. Christian Thorp Frederiksen, a 12-year-old from Denmark, built a paper airplane measuring 2.5 millimeters by one millimeter on March 16, 1995. On May 16, 1995, students from the Technology University of Delft built a plane with a wingspan of 40 feet, 10 inches.