Taking flight with engineered paper planes (photos)

Expert paper airplane builder John Collins shares his secrets to building the best flyers--landing gear, nacelle engine housings, and all.

James Martin
James Martin is the Managing Editor of Photography at CNET. His photos capture technology's impact on society - from the widening wealth gap in San Francisco, to the European refugee crisis and Rwanda's efforts to improve health care. From the technology pioneers of Google and Facebook, photographing Apple's Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai, to the most groundbreaking launches at Apple and NASA, his is a dream job for any documentary photography and journalist with a love for technology. Exhibited widely, syndicated and reprinted thousands of times over the years, James follows the people and places behind the technology changing our world, bringing their stories and ideas to life.
James Martin
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Paper planes

Ask John Collins just how he became such a master of the art of paper airplanes and he'll tell you years and years of practice.

"How did I get into it?" He says, "I didn't, I just never got out of it."

Collins has taken what is for many a casual school day pastime, and evolved the art of the paper plane into a study of science and engineering.

While even the most basic planes are fun for most schoolroom flights, Collins says a few careful tricks and basic principles of flight can take your plane from crash-and-burn to out of this world.
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Simple to complex design

Careful folds are important, Collins says, and making sure the rear of the plane is crisp and free from unnecessary creases will give your plane a more stable flight.

Most of Collins' designs are made with a single sheet of standard 8.5x11 paper, and he is capable of building an incredible number of designs with just one sheet, but some are more complex, like this starship-inspired design with two sets of wings.
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Landing gear

Collins' designs have evolved significantly from your basic folds, and he has even built landing gear into his designs.

His original landing gear design was made for wood floors, but when he moved to an apartment with thick shag carpeting, Collins built the landing gear into pontoon-like feet, allowing the plane to easily skim across thick carpeting.
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Nacelle engine housings

While most designs experiment with airflow and flight technique, some of the plane designs mimic fighter jet style, like this Twin Jet design, which has two nacelle engine housings built in.
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Pushing plane design

In 2009, Collins attempted to break the world record for paper airplane time aloft with his "follow foil."

Using a full sheet of phone book paper, Collins designed a new category of paper airplane you fly using a piece of cardboard. Essentially one big wing, the follow foil is a single length of paper with a simple fold on either end. The tumbling wing is light enough to stay aloft with the updraft created by the angled cardboard, and Collins was able to fly this design for more than 30 minutes.

He showed a video of his 30-minute flight to the judges at the Guinness World Records. He says they were impressed with his creativity, commended his design, and said it was amazing, but then promptly changed their definition of paper plane flights to exclude this sort of flight from the paper plane record attempts.
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Basic design

When it comes down to the science behind flight, the concepts of plane design are simple, Collins says. A typical 8.5x11 sheet of paper weighs 2.2 grams, and bigger wings don't have to work as hard as small wings to lift the same amount of paper.

Lift, weight, and drag are the three concepts central to paper plane design, and achieving a balance between the center of lift and the center of gravity will give you a nice, long glide and maximum time aloft.

This plane, one of my favorite of Collins', is a smooth and steady stunt plane called The Boomerang. With small tweaks to the wings, the plane will fly in a number of different flight patterns, circling left, circling right, or even making vertical loops.

Build your own Boomerang with help from this video on Collins' Web site.
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Positive dihedral angle

Positive dihedral angle, Collins says, is the secret to plane flight and one of the most commonly overlooked concepts in paper plane flight.

It sounds complicated, but you don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand how to build the best wing. By having the wings leave the body of the plane with an upward sweep, you'll get a better, more accurate flight and a plane that's easier to control. Just tilt the wings upward instead of downward for a better paper plane, Collins says.
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The Tube

One of Collins' most unique flying designs is more UFO than airplane. The Tube, a single sheet of paper, is a centrifugal force design that relies on its angle of attack for flight.
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The Tube

A forceful throw sends the odd tube paper plane zooming across the room. The Tube is one of more simple, innovative, and unique flying paper designs I've ever seen.
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Stealth Dart

Collins' Stealth Dart design uses careful folds, a curved trailing edge, creased wings, and creased tips to give it superior sailing ability and increased outdoor stability.

Most of Collins' designs are folded from just single sheets of paper, but are clearly highly engineered and folded with attention to detail, carefully and deliberately.
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LF 1

LF 1, one of Collins' locked fuselage deigns, holds the center of the plane together, giving the rigid body a weighted front and guaranteed swooping flight.
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LF 1

Another view of the LF 1.
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Curved tips

Building planes that fly long and far is fun, and paper plane maker John Collins has come up with some incredible designs.

See more paper planes and how-to videos on Collins' YouTube channel.
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John Collins

See more paper planes and how-to videos on Collins YouTube channel.

Also visit John Collins' Web site for more cool paper plane tips and tricks.

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