Folding Paper, Part 2: Paper Airplanes


There are many things that can be done with a sheet of paper. While “Kick Me” signs and those ridiculous fortune-teller doohickeys have gone out of style, the act of turning paper into a flying machine is still cool, and it is still a mark of one’s intellect.

Paper airplanes are cheap, easily replaceable toys that can serve dual purposes; anyone ever write a love note and then air-mail it to the recipient? That impresses guys and girls alike. They even make for good improvised activities when lost in the desert…I know from experience.

Grab your favorite folding material and let’s take a look at paper airplanes! (For everyone’s interest, the best material for a paper plane is probably paper…I prefer college-ruled notebook sheets).


Naturally, paper planes are as old as paper itself, dating back to 490 BCE. The interesting historical implications of paper airplanes are that they helped define man-made air travel; Leonardo da Vinci folded some paper aircraft in order to develop his ornithopter and parachute designs. Sir George Cayley and other pioneers of flight began testing paper gliders in wind tunnels and natural environments in the late 1800’s as well.

Also, who would have thought that Wilbur and Orville Wright were using paper airplanes to test their designs at the turn of the century? I sure didn’t know that. Someone should tell my third grade teacher that my “wasting time” with aerogami (clever, eh?) actually lead to the first manned flight in Kitty Hawk all those years ago.

paper airplane advanced

Someone's always gotta be a smarty pants and overachieve.


My Encounters

Back before school libraries became “media centers,” which are little more than computer labs with books as decoration, we were required to do some independent reading. Early in my student career, the library was a wasteland of “Babysitter’s Club” and “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels.

The kids that chose not to read prose (a considerable amount of my class) instead found the pile of instructional books, and only the cool kids were able to snatch a paper airplane manual. They were the first books checked out every year, and they never came back until June.

Beyond that, my most memorable encounter with paper airplanes involved a road trip in Eastern Oregon. After the pick-up died in the middle of the desert, my father took great delight in teaching me how to bank a paper plane to the left or right (the plane was made from receipt papers out of the glove box). This kept us from losing our minds as we waited for a tow truck.

The Best Way to Learn

While origami is more of an art, paper aircraft involve more science. Kids and adults alike should study up on aerodynamics and physics in order to achieve expert status, but who needs status? I’m here to play, Jack!


It's much simpler than the instructions make it look.


As before with origami, books and kits that come with custom paper are surprisingly cheap. One that is friendly to all ages is Zoom!: The Complete Paper Airplane Kit by Margaret A. Hartelius, illustrated by Cameron Eagle. Complete instructions to start the creativity are necessary, but then one’s mind needs to wander with the possibilities of custom designs.

The Benefits

Even if your paper airplanes don’t fly too far (many of mine have taken dramatic nose-dives into the ground), you’re always learning something by trying one out. If experimenting outdoors, one sees the effects of airflow and the physical properties of their materials in action. Indoors, the emphasis can be heavier on aesthetic design and competition (the same environmental conditions mean a fair game of “which plane goes further”).

Paper airplanes are the perfect activity, because everyone likes to see something bend the rules of physics. In the classroom they may be a dastardly distraction, but there is scientific and artistic merit to the design and experimentation of paper aircraft. Plus they are a whole lot cooler than those dopey fortune teller thingies (can you tell how my fortune was always unfair?).

Fly! Fold your first prototype and become the small-scale, paper version of Howard Hughes. Maybe you can win a contest, such as the one sponsored by the Scholastic publishing company, who put out all those great books I read in grade school…because the paper plane books were taken. …Hope you enjoyed part 2 of our Folding Paper series. Read part 1 on origami here.


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