A Light Flight for the Record Books

At age 15, Ken Blackburn thought he had some news for "The Guinness Book of Records." The North Carolina farm boy had designed and flown a folded-paper airplane that had stayed in the air 10 seconds longer than the world-record mark of 15 seconds.

But Guinness had some news for him: Sorry, Ken, the record has to be set inside, not outside, where breezes can lift and carry the plane.

Blackburn was disappointed but undaunted. Ever since he was 10 years old, he had been reading everything he could about real airplanes and applying what he learned to paper planes. He started practicing indoors, working on his throw and perfecting his design - a cross between a paper dart and a square plane. He was getting good, clocking times of around 17 seconds. But then he had to stop and turn his full attention to college.

Four years later, Blackburn was a junior at North Carolina State University, majoring in (what else?) aeronautics. He was still folding and flying paper planes. He'd told his friends about his brush with near-fame, and they urged him to try again.

Trying to set a world record was "the perfect college activity," he says now. Blackburn began practicing in earnest.

On Nov. 29, 1983, Blackburn, some friends, and a reporter from the school newspaper gathered in the Reynolds Coliseum on campus. Blackburn had been working for weeks. One of his planes, nicknamed Old Bossy, had routinely posted times of 17-plus seconds.

Another shot at the title

After a few warm-up throws, Blackburn reached for Old Bossy, reared back, and hurled the plane - thunk! Right into a cluster of loudspeakers in the rafters. Oh, no!

One of his friends handed him a piece of plain copier paper. Blackburn quickly folded a new plane. On his third attempt, it stayed up for 16.89 seconds. A new world record!

He broke his own record four years later, in 1987 (17.20 seconds). Then, in an airplane hangar in New York's JFK Airport on Feb. 17, 1994, he set a record that still stands: 18.80 seconds. Blackburn lifted weights for two months to get in shape for that throw.

His top-flight secrets

So if anyone knows how to fold and throw great paper planes, it's Blackburn. What's the secret?

Actually, there are three, he says.

First, the plane has to be a good design. Most of the classic ones - paper darts, square planes, others - are good. These, along with many others designed by Blackburn, are included in a book he wrote with Jeff Lammers: "Kids' Paper Airplane Book" (Workman Publishing, 1996). The book has airplane designs you can tear out, fold, and fly.

Second, the plane has to be properly adjusted.

"It's the small adjustments," he says, that make the difference between a plane that flies poorly and one that flies well.

"There are two basic adjustments that most people don't do, that they should," he adds. They are:

1. The wings should be up at an angle so that they form a slight Y shape with the fuselage (the part you grip). This is called a dihedral (die-HEED-rull) angle.

2. The elevators - the back edges of the wings - should be bent up slightly. This pushes the tail of the plane down and the nose up. Having the nose up is what develops lift.

Remember, Blackburn says, even if you fold 100 of the same plane in a row, each will fly differently. Tiny differences in the paper and in the folds you make will affect the flight of each. Some will naturally fly better than others.

Another tip: A nose-heavy plane is more stable. Try adding a paper clip or even a couple of staples to the nose of your plane.

The final thing you need for a good flight is a good throw. See the photo (left) of Blackburn throwing his plane? He starts with the tail of the plane almost touching the ground, and flings it straight up - at 60 miles per hour! The throw is half the secret to a world-record flight, he says. His throw is a combination of a baseball pitch and a shot-put hurl, with a few biomechanical twists tossed in.

For indoor flights, a good easy toss will do. Hold the plane in front of your shoulder for flights under 15 feet. Hold it above your shoulder for longer distances. Throw it level, or even down a bit.

Still experimenting

Today, Ken Blackburn is an aeronautical engineer at McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis. He's worked on the T-45 jet trainer, the AV-8B attack jet, and the F18 jet fighter. And he still makes paper planes an average of four or five hours a week.

Blackburn experiments by changing one aspect of the design and then watching to see how that affects its flight. It's hard to tell, he says, because each hand-folded plane turns out a little differently. And tiny differences have a big effect on flights. (He's now wondering if tiny holes punched in the leading edge of the wings will help. They do on full-sized sailplanes.)

"I credit a lot of what I know about aerodynamics to paper airplanes," he says, because he knows by experience what works and what doesn't. "You always have to go back to the fundamentals. And paper airplanes are fundamental."

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