The Paper Airplane Guy John Collins has studied both origami and aerodynamics and spent many years improving paper planes designs. One of the planes – “Suzanne” – named after his wife, has broken Guinness world record in 2012, flying 226 feet 10 inches.
A week after Maker Faire, Bay Area, John will travel to Vilnius, Lithuania to participate in Vilnius Mini Maker Faire and its Education Forum. As organizers of this event, we are glad to share the interview with this dedicated maker who has proven to thousands of people around the world that science can be embracing, challenging and fun at the same time.
30 Years of Big Dreams
Usually when we think about paper airplanes, a grown up full time paper plane maker doesn’t pop up in our mind. How did it happen that you dedicated your life to paper airplanes? What was so attractive or engaging in this activity?
It didn’t happen overnight. My first book was published in 1989, so I’ve been professional in one way or another for 30 years if you start counting from the time I got the advance for that book. When the book hit store shelves, I started doing small presentations for book stores and libraries. Usually, I didn’t get paid much, if anything, for showing up.
I was happy to promote the book. Your first book is like your first child. You give it a lot of attention and have big dreams. Nobody gets rich by writing a paper airplane book, so inevitably there’s a letdown. I kept going anyway because I just love paper airplanes.
I’ve been full time for the past three and half years. That was purely an accident, literally. I got fired for accidentally mishandling a digital file. I thought I had deleted it, but I ended up being able to rescue it. By then it was too late. So, it was a complete accident that I had to re-evaluate what I wanted to do, and what I could do; and I decided to try being the full time paper airplane guy. If you just looked at it logically, there were huge risks and nothing to really compare the potential to. It was quite a leap of faith. I had worked in marketing and television production for decades and never lost anyone money marketing their products, so I figured I could make my effort work.
The money is not like running a creative services department, but the rewards are much better. Working with students from K through post grad is an amazing experience. My 45 minute shows are live performances with 24 flying machines that have to work perfectly on cue. There’s plenty of challenge to getting that right every time. I really enjoy the live audience part as well. You can tell immediately what’s working and what’s not. The books have picked up some momentum in sales recently. So, things are going great right now.
What did you do before becoming a professional paper airplane guy?
I was a liberal arts major. I worked in television. I directed live newscasts for more than 20 years. Then I worked in commercial production; producing, writing, directing, editing, and sometimes voicing television commercials. I had a great time doing all of that work. It was enormously fun and challenging.
All during those years, I was writing paper airplane books and studying origami. My fourth book is just out. I self-published this time so that I could get exactly the book I wanted, and with Amazon, the distribution is much easier for self-publishing than ever before.
What was the turning point in your life when you understood you can make innovations in paper airplanes?
I realized fairly early, probably at nine or ten, that I could fold more accurately than my brothers. I also felt I had some intuition when it came to flying things. But really, it wasn’t until after I’d studied some of the great origami artists that my planes really became something special. I knew what I wanted to do with the folding, and all of those origami techniques really helped tremendously. That was really about a ten-year process of studying the art form and slowly bringing those techniques into my planes. It’s relatively easy to follow someone’s directions. Figuring out why they did the steps in a particular order is the interesting part,and that takes time, study and repetition.
Experts say that it takes about 10,000 hours of working in a medium before the artifice becomes second nature. The process disappears and then you can translate your thoughts or emotions into the work without consciously thinking about the paint brush, the musical instrument, or in my case the precise folding techniques.
Were there any failures in making airplanes design which ended up becoming a successful accident, a great paper airplane?
This is a great question on a couple of levels. First, the whole idea of failure is interesting. I think in terms of outcome; not success or failure. Like any science experiment, there’s no wrong outcome. It’s just data; information from which you can move forward. When I made my first attempt to break the world record for distance, I fell short. I had to call my sponsors and tell them I didn’t make it. I was really dreading those phone calls. It kept me up most of the night, knowing I was going to talk to the people who had put up all the money for the cameras, the venue, the food, the surveyor, etc. One by one, they all ended up asking the same thing: you’re going to keep going, right?
That taught me an important lesson about business people and life. Business people expect that there will be setbacks. Winning is easy. It’s apparent when you win. Failing is actually more complicated. One has to declare failure. You actually have to decide you’ve failed.
So, yes, a couple of planes that I created, thinking they were going to be one thing, ended up being something else. The Bat Plane started out to be the Sea Gull. I got the wings about the right shape, but then the wings twitched weirdly when I launched it. Figuring out why the wings twitched lead me to using thinner paper to magnify the effect. Now the plane looks like a flapping bat, and it’s obviously the Bat Plane.
The Boomerang II was simply supposed to be the Boomerang I with landing gear. In making compromises in the layering to create the landing gear, I got the center of gravity too far to the rear. The plane would stall horribly and crash. On some throws it would flip over an fly a couple of feet toward me. Well, that was intriguing enough for me to figure out how to make the plane come all the way back. It took a couple of weeks of tweaking and throwing practice, but I eventually created one of the stars of my program; a plane that flies out, flips over, and flies back upside down. I think the history of invention is like that. Starting with a goal, making concrete steps toward the goal, evaluating the result; not just for the original goal, but overall utility; and then proceeding as planned or pursuing the unexpected.
Were there any doubts and down moments in your life when you got bored or irritated of making paper airplanes and wanted to drop everything?
I’ve always loved the process of making a paper airplane. The precision, the act of folding the paper, the challenge of conquering the air… there’s a kind of magic to all of that. It’s almost a meditation. While I can recall wishing I was finished with a task like folding 1,500 planes for a corporate event, I’ve never been tired of making planes for my presentation, or bored of the whole idea. I’m always looking for ways to improve and refine. Every plane you make is an opportunity. Of course, it’s only been a full time job for less than four years, so maybe that’s a better question for a few years down the road. For now, I can say it’s constantly fresh and fun.
How long did it take to complete the “glider project”: to create, make and improve this design before it could break the world record for the farthest paper plane flight?
The whole project took about three years. Finding a thrower, a place to throw, and then having to switch to a glider design. It was much harder than I had anticipated. The funny thing about the glider I eventually used was that it was precisely the same folding pattern that I used on the very first plane I folded from A4 paper. Of course, I tinkered with it, expanding the wings, adding reinforcement creases here and there; playing with dihedral (that ended up being huge) but the folding sequence ended up being my very first try. That’s kind of odd and somewhat amazing that I guessed right on the first try. Of course, you have to try a lot of other things to realize that.
What is your own favorite paper airplane design at the moment?
That’s an unfair question. That’s like asking what your favorite child is. You might have one, but you’d never admit that in public.
There’s a Real Hunger for Making
You published some books on how to make paper airplanes: do you know who your readers and followers are? Are they children or grown-ups?
The fun part about my books is that they seem to be for everybody. Every age group is buying them. I think there’s a real hunger for making things; even very simple things like paper airplanes. I think that’s why Maker Faires have become a global phenomenon.
Humans are born makers. We even invent our own reality moment to moment in the form of stories we tell ourselves. This is why “talk therapy” works. It’s why mirror therapy works on phantom limb pain (a kind of therapy where you duplicate the good side of the body and move it while you watch—your brain sees both sides of your body working fine and learns to disregard the weird message from the missing limb.) That tells us that our brains are making up a “reality story” and we can re-write that story if we want to. We love making physical things, making stories out of ordinary events, making celebrations, making food, making drinks, making clothes—we love making. It feels good. Maker Faires tap into that. It’s an addicting feeling and a virtuous feedback loop.
You talked a lot about paper airplanes as a great educational tool to learn aerodynamics and geometry. What would be your advice to teachers who would like to experiment with this activity during their lessons?
Just do it. Almost any physical manipulative creates a scientific method kind of activity loop. For paper airplanes, you make a guess at how to fly it better and devise an experiment (the kind of adjust you want to try), you make the adjustment, run the trial (the throw), you generate data (did it work?), you analyze why and formulate a new hypothesis. Every flight is a test flight. Paper airplanes improve small motor coordination, direction following, 3D visualization (taking a 2D object and making it into a 3D object), basic geometric shape recognition and more; the rudiments of algebra are sitting there in the idea of doing the same thing to both sides of the plane. That’s the way you manipulate equations. From early learners through secondary education, there’s a place for paper airplanes. If you’re still unclear about that email me.
You became a professional airplane maker, broke Guinness world record, got on TV, wrote books, travelled the world, talked to big audiences… Are there any future plans left? Maybe there’s another world record you’d like to beat?
There’s always another record to go after. Duration is hanging out there as a tempting goal. This last year has been a whirlwind, so I’ve not put as much time into that idea as I would’ve preferred. I like to write books, so I may eventually do a book for powered paper airplanes. There are a couple of powered schemes I like, but I don’t love the planes they use. I think there’s opportunity there to take it up a notch there.
What are your other interests and hobbies?
I really love windsurfing. It’s a wing on a surfboard. All of the aerodynamics and the visceral fun of balancing your body, the wind, and the water all at the same time. It’s one of those sports where you need to be present all the time. If you lose concentration, you’re going for a swim. So, it’s a nice diversion. I swing dance with my wife, Suzanne. We’re not that good, but we have a lot of fun.
A Cross Between a County Fair and Burning Man
You are maker, closely connected with makers movement – how could you describe who makers are to the general public that haven’t heard about them?
Makers look like they’re a breed apart, but they’re not. They’re everybody. The backyard inventor, the garage tinkerer, the serious hobbiest, the welder, dress maker, 3D printer, wood worker, auto mechanic, metal spinner, the knitter, the beadworker, the model maker, the cook, and the paper folder all find common cause under the umbrella of Maker. The bigger Maker Faires are like a cross between a County Fair and Burning Man—it’s all the fire breathing sculpture fun without the nudity. Makers have a passion to share what they’ve learned and are really ambassadors for their field of making. Some makers have taken a small piece of their hobby and pushed it to the limits. The result looks odd sometimes, but it’s the result of arguing to the logical extreme. Going to a Maker Faire, you will see a lot of things you’ve always wanted to try. And you’ll get the chance! That’s the best thing about a Maker Faire; you’re going to make stuff. You can’t keep from it. One of my favorite things to get people to make is a smile. That’s a pretty good start.
Finally, what are you going to present in Vilnius Mini Maker Faire and its’ Educational forum on May 25-26?
I’m coming fully loaded with fun. I’m bringing every kind of plane anyone has ever seen me fly. Boomerangs, flappers, tumblers, spinners, a plane that flips over and flies back upside down, and some planes that seem to fly forever (actual forever may vary). People will learn how to make the world record plane, of course. And I’ve got a newly designed activity table for learning to make the Tumbling Wing. Vilnius will be only the third time I’ve used this maker project, and I’m really excited to see how it works with people who won’t necessarily speak English. I think the diagrams are strong enough, and we’ll find out where the gaps are pretty quickly. It’ll be a blast watching people learn to balance a plane on an invisible wave of air. That never gets old! Did I mention I have the best job in the world?
Photos from John Collin‘s personal archives