The paper airplane swooped around the rafters of the Payne Whitney Gymnasium amphitheater, performing two loop-de-loops. It circled above the heads of the crowd twice, then floated down to rest, returning to the hands of its creator, Jack Hart ’12.
In front of about 150 spectators and other contestants at the Red Bull Paper Wings paper airplane competition last month, the plane’s aerobatics won Hart not only 24 free Red Bulls and a backpack, but also a chance to compete in the world Paper Wings championships in Salzburg, Austria on May 1-2. The energy drink company sponsors the competitions as a part of a global publicity campaign, playing on its slogan, “Red Bull gives you wings.”
“I’m pretty blown away,” Hart, a Wilmette, Il., native, said. “It’s pretty ridiculous that throwing a piece of paper in the Payne Whitney gym has landed me a trip to Austria.”
Hart is one of 14 American college students, all selected from qualifying contests on campuses around the country, who will fly to Europe at the beginning of May to pit their planes against those of 300 other qualifiers from 85 countries.
Paper airplane designers compete in three categories: distance, which tests the farthest flight; hang time, which tests longest airtime; and flight aerobatics, in which planes compete based on their design and their ability to perform loops and other aerial gymnastics.
Hart’s plane almost won all three categories. Although he earned a first seed among the American students going to Austria for winning the aerobatics category at Yale last month, his plane also placed first in the hang time contest (7.9 seconds) and second in distance (52 feet).
Hart, who has not yet decided on a major, said he was surprised that his win attracted so much publicity on campus — but friends say he is something of a paper airplane guru.
“Jack’s kind of a paper-airplane expert,” said Nick Simmons-Stern ’12, who notched a second-place finish behind Hart last month. “He’s pretty modest about it, but he’s been working on this one design since he was like in fifth grade. He’s got it pretty much perfected.”
Hart taught his Davenport College classmate Simmons-Stern to fold his design, and both flew planes built from the same design in Payne Whitney. But the difference lay in the throw, which is more important for paper airplane success than even the plane itself, Simmons-Stern said.
“Jack, being a master paper-airplaner, has mastered the throw.” Simmons-Stern, who credits his own success to Hart’s design, said. “I think that’s why he won.”
Recognizing the importance of the throw’s angle and form, Hart has researched the best way to throw a paper airplane by watching YouTube videos. For hang time and aerobatics, he recommended leaning far back and “chucking it” straight up at a 90-degree angle; if distance is the goal, he said, a thrower should aim the plane at 45 degrees.
For such a versatile plane, Hart’s creation is deceptively simple: constructed from a standard sheet of white 8.5 in. by 11 in. copy paper, it has wide, flat wings and a front-heavy nose.
Hart, who called himself “one of those kids who’s into planes and trains,” began folding his signature planes so long ago he said he cannot remember when he first came up with the design. Out of all of the planes he folded for fun, one stood out, and he later folded it for his campers when he was working as a camp counselor.
“I think simplicity is kind of key to the whole paper airplane thing,” Hart said. “You want something that’s front-heavy with a large wingspan.”
Ahead of the competition in May, Hart is trying to perfect his plane even further while still maintaining its basic design, and plans to contact an applied physics professor at the University to consult on the design. Because aerobatics contestants are allowed to bring their planes with them to Austria, he plans on folding one beforehand and carrying it in a shoebox.
The plane will be folded out of construction paper, he said, with some tape to keep the wings folded in the correct position. He may also add flaps and extra tape in the back, he said.
“It was pretty impressive, even with just the basic design he had,” said Tim Handlon ’09, Red Bull’s student brand manager on campus, who helped organize the event and provided running commentary. “If you’re able to do that with just the basic design, it should be interesting to see what he does with more stuff.”
The Paper Wings world finals will take place in Salzburg’s Hangar 7, which houses not only 16 historical aircrafts but a gourmet restaurant and photographs from the Wright brothers’ collection, and will be supervised by, among others, the world record holder in distance and a Guiness Book of World Records representative. Competition for the championship and the grand prize, a flight in what a Red Bull press release calls a “one-of-a-kind Alpha Jet,” is fierce: According to the competition’s Web site, the last world finals’ winners began training to defend their championships over four weeks ago.