It is a bird… It is a plane… A paper airplane, that is!
Three aerospace engineers smashed the previous record for the longest paper airplane flight with an aircraft that flew 289 feet, 9 inches (88 meters), or almost the length of an American football field.
They broke the previous record set in April 2022 by a foursome from South Korea, which stood at 252 feet, 7 inches (77 meters). Before that, it had been over ten years since the record was broken.
“It really put things on the map and it’s a really proud moment for family and friends,” According to a press release from Dillon Ruble, a systems engineer at Boeing and current paper airplane record holder. “It’s a good tie in to aerospace and thinking along the lines of designing and creating prototypes.”
Ruble collaborated with aeronautical engineer Nathaniel Erickson and strength engineer Garrett Jensen, both of whom were employed by Boeing.
The three individuals are recent graduates from Missouri University of Science and Technology who majored in mechanical and aerospace engineering.
The crew spent up to 500 hours researching origami and aerodynamics to develop and test numerous prototypes, which took months of work.
On December 2, 2022, in Crown Point, Indiana, the engineers put their final creation to the test, and Ruble’s third throw set the record.
“We hope this record stands for quite a while — 290 feet (88 meters) is unreal,” Jensen said in the release. “That’s 14 to 15 feet (4.2 to 4.6 meters) over the farthest throw we ever did. It took a lot of planning and a lot of skill to beat the previous record.”
Paper Plane Physics
The crew had concluded that an aircraft with a design that prioritized speed and reduced drag would allow it to travel great distances quickly and give them the best chance of breaking the world record.
The NASA X-43A was one of many hypersonic aircraft, or “Mach 5,” that the crew had drawn inspiration from when coming up with their winning paper aircraft design, which they eventually dubbed “Mach 5.”
“Full-scale and paper airplanes have vast differences in their complexity, but both operate on the same fundamental principles,” Ruble stated via email. “Some of the same design methodologies can be applied to both. One of these methods was our trial-and-error design process. For instance, we would theorize about a fold we could change on our plane, fold it, throw it, and compare the distance to previous iterations to determine if the change was beneficial.”
The researchers experimented with several models and studied slow-motion recordings of prior throws to determine the most effective method for tossing the paper airplane.
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“We found the optimal angle is about 40 degrees off the ground. Once you’re aiming that high, you throw as hard as possible. That gives us our best distance,” Jensen stated in the press release. “It took simulations to figure that out. I didn’t think we could get useful data from a simulation on a paper airplane. Turns out, we could.”
The team chose the paper as the finest for manipulating and folding into the winning airplane. A4 is a little longer than standard letter-sized paper.
The three were prepared to break a record with these carefully considered design decisions and thorough observance of the numerous rules and criteria established by the Guinness World Record Team.
The aircraft was in the air for about six seconds during its distance flight that set a record. The current Guinness World Record for the longest paper airplane flight is 29.2 seconds.
“The design objectives for an air-time record would be vastly different from the low-drag version we built for the longest-distance record,” Ruble said via email. “Increasing the wingspan and decreasing the aspect ratio would be the first steps in producing this type of plane.”
With the exception of the paper airplane, Ruble said, this time-consuming process of back-and-forth tests demonstrated the value of thorough prototyping in the real world.
From Origami Enthusiasts To Aerospace Engineers
Ruble and Jensen started in paper airplane engineering while still in middle school by participating in competitions at Boeing. Ruble claimed that he enjoyed bringing the paper to life and the effort it took to find ways to make his ideas better. Both of them were early admirers of origami.
A tweet from The Boeing Company’s official Twitter account:
This group of #TeamBoeing engineers from St. Louis officially broke the Guinness World Record for the farthest flight by a paper aircraft.
— The Boeing Company (@Boeing) February 22, 2023
The crew that broke the record believes their success would encourage other ambitious aerospace engineers to follow their aspirations.
The task is not insurmountable for those who want to design a world-record-breaking paper airplane, but it may take some time (and talent).
“Mach 5 flies best at high relative velocity, but to achieve this condition, the aircraft must be launched in a specific manner,” said Ruble via email. “This technique, in addition to the complexity of the plane, means that only the most experienced paper aircraft enthusiasts would have success with the design.”
“However, by starting with publicly available designs, anyone can hone their skills to throw paper airplanes farther and higher than all of their friends,” he added.
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