Meet the Bay Area’s paper airplane World Record holder (who recruited a quarterback to throw it 75 yards)

Hiller Aviation Museum regularly hosts John Collins: world champ (and all-around wizard) of paper airplane flying.

John Collins, aka “The Paper Airplane Guy,” gives a master class in folding for efficient flight, at Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos. (Photo by Amar Dillon)

Glide into Hiller Aviation Museum this summer, and you’ll discover aerodynamics enthusiast John Collins leading a spirited series for diverse crowds. Also known by the straightforward moniker “The Paper Airplane Guy,” Collins is a world-renowned master of morphing standard sheets of A4 office paper into high-flying vessels. He understands that one savvy crease can make the difference between crash catastrophe and soaring success.

As it happens, the Sausalito native has quite the quirky, captivating legacy. He is well-known by paper plane enthusiasts worldwide and often recognized by his signature tie (navy blue with paper planes zigzagging across its fabric). It’s the same one he wore during his achievement of the world record for farthest flight of a paper airplane: 226 feet, 10 inches (about the length of a Boeing 747’s wingspan).

This offbeat celebrity’s monthly workshops at Hiller Aviation Museum bring paper plane lovers — first timers to fanatics — into the fold.

Collins exhibiting his own wingspan beneath the aeronautical displays at Hiller. (Photo by Amar Dillon)

Fly like paper, high like planes

John Collins treats the folding of paper as an art form, and draws inspiration from a wide range of airborne entities, including flying animals, full-sized planes and even a space craft from the original Star Trek series. He’s also found origami helpful in attaining more flight-efficient shapes. Fondly, he recalls stumbling on the practice of origami as a fifth grader and discovering a whole new arsenal of techniques for paper folding. “Here’s all this stuff you thought you’d come up with… only done way better… invented 1500 years ago,” he chuckles. His eyes, the same color as the sky his planes traverse, laugh too.

In fact, Collins generally has a long-view take on his area of crease expertise. “If you got something wrapped in paper in the 3rd or 4th century, chances are someone was trying to show off and wrap it in this really valuable thing,” he sagely points out. “It was the ultimate, high-end tech. If someone wrapped an iPhone in carbon nano-tubes it would be like, ‘Oh my god! Forget the iPhone. It’s carbon nano-tubes!’”

Over the years, Collins’ niche knowledge of all things pulp-produced has sparked quite a few adventures. His planes have taken him to four continents and landed him guest appearances on the Conan Show, TEDx Talks and WIRED’s video series “Obsessed.” He’s published a number of books and illustrated everything from boomerangs to bat planes. One of his models—The Star Fighter—even wound up in an indie Australian film called Paper Planes. (“It ended up being a character in the movie practically,” he states, explaining that The Star Fighter acts as a sort of accomplice to the film’s antagonist.)

Yet his prevailing claim to fame is clearly his world record.

Going the distance

In 2012, the paper airplane universe was grounded when the longstanding record was shredded. Many a valiant plane gave its life to secure that victory. “The whole thing was a three-year journey,” Collins recalls.

One of his first considerations was selecting the right thrower’s arm for the job. But as he partnered with football players, he soon found it trickier than expected. The meatier hands of his first recruit warped his planes. The second possessed such an explosive throw that the planes tore in half with the snap of his wrist. Finally, Collins connected with Joe Ayoob, a football star with a bit of baseball experience. “He was familiar with changing his throwing mechanics because he’d changed sports,” Collins describes. “So he looked at this thing from a totally technical point of view. Not, ‘How do I throw something hard?’ But, ‘How do I throw a paper airplane hard?’” Ayoob switched from an elbow-up position typical of quarterbacks to an elbow-down position to make the wings more level, then he strove for smoother acceleration.

Although Ayoob was much more compatible with the planes, the pair were coming in just under the old record. Collins decided to switch to an entirely different design. Initially, he’d tried to span the distance with a javelin-like, small-wing dart, folding lots of layers together to make the form rigid. Now, he switched to a glider.

Workshop attendees at Hiller are brought into the fold. (Photo by Amar Dillon)

But bigger wings meant more stress from extra speed. “And getting a glider to go straight for any great distance is a really big trick,” Collins adds. He adjusted his model by “varying dihedral angle from nose to tail, optimizing lift to drag for different flight speeds.” For us folks less fluent in the foreign dialect of aerodynamics that means he folded it to best transition to a variety of speeds over the duration of its trip (a fast start, a slowdown midway and a pickup in speed after passing that halfway hump).

Next, Collins realized that the laid paper he’d been using for the body of the plane was manufactured by being placed wet on the conveyer belt, therefore picking up unwanted texture which caused turbulence in-flight. He switched to smoother, A4 paper at the maximum allowed weight. The resulting plane, Suzanne, at last carried the partners to triumph. “Once I became the world record holder, I went from being crazy to just eccentric!” Collins joked with NBC Bay Area. [Watch the winning throw below, as featured on Conan O’Brien]

Fittingly, Collins named Suzanne after his wife of 35 years, a relationship that has indeed traveled the distance. “Every great plane is named after a great woman,” he notes affectionately.

Clockwise from top: Collins demonstrates flight duration based on air resistance (see a video of the same demo below); a dad jumps in to help with the folds; numerous colorful planes at Hiller. (Photo by Amar Dillon)

Winged workshops

Collins’ worldwide whirlwind of a journey has brought him back to the Bay Area, including his recent series of paper airplane demonstrations at Hiller Aviation Museum.

Without a doubt, Collins is in his element during these workshops, tossing myriad colorful planes over the crowd, teaching insights on aerodynamics, instructing kids and grownups alike on crafting a quality plane. And there couldn’t be a more ideal place for his presentation: Both the large metal aircrafts hanging suspended from the Hiller’s ceiling and the gentle roar of distant airliners landing and leaving the nearby San Carlos Airport fuel the uplifting atmosphere.

Catch John’s next event at Hiller on August 14th at 11:00am.

Learn more about the events at Hiller Aviation Museum and details on visiting.

Learn more about John Collins on his website: www.thepaperairplaneguy.com

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Journalist with a fondness for micro-cultures and all things quirky.

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