One day in 1977, Yasuaki Ninomiya drove to the desert on the outskirts of Tehran, Iran. His job at the time was advising Iran's phone company in microwave measurement, his specialty in Japan. But for years his other specialty had been building and flying paper airplanes.
On this particular day, he recalls, "my paper plane ascended into the sky, propelled on a rising column of air" - or "thermal," as pilots call them. "The wings of my plane reflected the bright sun with a twinkle of light each time the plane circled as it rose." It banked and climbed for two minutes, three minutes, six minutes. He watched, transfixed, as it rose for 7 minutes, 20 seconds (he's a scientist, remember) and then vanished from his sight.
"It was as though my paper plane had penetrated the sky above the desert and disappeared," he says in an "interview" conducted by fax via a translator.
Today, Dr. Ninomiya lives in Yokohama, Japan, with his wife and 1,000 paper planes. Actually, the planes have their own condominium. In one photo, Ninomiya looks like a cave explorer peering at eerie, white-winged bats that cover the ceiling. Each is carefully hung by its nose from clothespins strung along wires.
"I am one of those airplane fans who thinks an airplane is the most beautiful work of art a human has ever created," he says. Ninomiya pioneered the technique of gluing together layers of special, very strong paper to make the fuselages (bodies) of paper planes.
His creations, now sold as "Whitewings Excellent Paper Airplanes" are "the Ferraris of paper airplanes," says Christopher Stetser. He's the curator of the "How Things Fly" exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and has run contests at the museum using Whitewings planes.
"If you build them right and tweak them, they do remarkable things," Mr. Stetser says. In 1993, a Japanese newspaper reported that one paper-plane hobbyist saw his Ninomiya-designed plane soar out of the park where he was flying it. Because he had put his address on the plane, it was found and returned to him - by a man who lived 10 miles away.
Ninomiya carries a telescoping fiberglass pole with him when he goes out to fly planes (from 10 a.m. to noon on a sunny day, with light breezes, is ideal). The pole, about two inches in diameter at its base, extends "at least" 40 feet, says an American businessman who accompanied him once. Like other well-prepared paper-plane enthusiasts in Japan, Ninomiya uses the pole to rescue his planes from trees.
BUT to truly succeed is to have your plane disappear. "A paper airplane that glides out of sight is perfectly adjusted - nothing out of place," a retired clothing manufacturer told a Tokyo newspaper. "You only know you have built a great airplane when you lose it to the blue sky."
Next weekend, Nov. 16 and 17, thousands of paper-plane hobbyists (there are an estimated 5 million of them in Japan) will gather in Tokyo's Green Park for the fourth consecutive All-Japan Cup. National champions will be decided in distance flown, time aloft, and design.
It was just such a contest that changed Ninomiya's life. On Christmas Eve, 1966, his wife spotted a small item in the newspaper: The First International Paper Airplane Contest, sponsored by Scientific American, was to be held the next month. Pan Am airlines was offering to fly any Japanese entries to New York City for free.
Ninomiya had built his first paper airplane at age 5 or 6, and had been making them ever since. He put eight of his best racing models in a box and sent it off. His entries - among 12,000 from 28 countries - not only won the distance competition but also the duration contest for the Pacific Rim division of the contest.
Ten years later, the president of AG Company in Osaka, Japan, met with Ninomiya after seeing his seven-volume "Collection of High-Performance Paper Planes," which sold more than 3 million copies in Japan. "Whitewings" kits were born, now distributed in America by AG's Redmond, Wash., affiliate.
"To experience, firsthand, the joy of flight," Ninomiya writes, "I believe the most exciting opportunity available to most of us is to fly miniature planes that you've made by yourself. That is why I highly recommend that you make and fly your own paper airplane!"
But if for some reason paper planes don't satisfy you, you could explore Ninomiya's first choice for experiencing the thrill of flight: hang gliding.
BOOKS AND KITS
*'The World Record Paper Airplane Book,' by Ken Blackburn and Jeff Lammers (Workman Publishing, $14.95, 1994). Sixty-five pages of easy text and some 100 printed cutout pages to make 16 kinds of planes.
*'The Great International Paper Airplane Book,' by Jerry Mander, et al. (Simon and Schuster, 127 pp., 1967). It's out of print, but look for it in libraries. A classic for all ages.
*'Illustrated Guide to Aerodynamics,' 2nd. ed., by H.C. (Skip) Smith (TAB books, $21.95, 337 pp., 1992). Recommended by the curator of 'How Things Fly' at the National Air and Space Museum. For advanced students of flight. Dr. Ninomiya would approve.
*Whitewings Excellent Paper Airplanes (AG Industries Inc., Redmond, Wash.). Twenty-two kits contain from one to 15 planes. Some are precut, others require patience and precision cutting. Cost: about $18.50 for a 15-model kit. Ages 8 and up.