John Collins (AKA The Paper Airplane Guy) Walkalong Glider Interview
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John Collins starting the National Paper Airplane Constest with a Kickstarter

John Collins paper airplane design smashes the distance record! John on Conan, very funny and at the end is his new paper walkalong! John folding the world record plane. Also, another great interview. And Another!

It YouTube is blocked at your school, try this SchoolTube version

Here is some good footage that Phil Rossoni got of John at the St. Louis Science Center SciFest.

This video is an interview with one of the major innovators of surfing objects on waves or air, but first an introduction. The first object I ever surfed on air was a piece of telephone book paper, folded to turn like a paddle wheel as it flies. The design was simple and elegant, the perfect glider to start with. It turned out that the tumbling wing’s inventor was John Collins, AKA The Paper Airplane Guy. John travels to science museums throughout the world to reveal the science behind his remarkable paper airplane designs.   When the St. Louis Science Center hosted a group of walkalong gliding innovators I wanted the tumbling wing’s inventor to join us. He dazzled everyone with his skill. Somebody said, “I bet if we gave him a brick he could make it fly.”  

Although I conducted a rushed interview with John in St. Louis, I lost it because of technical difficulties. It was the best mistake I ever made, because I pestered him to re-record a deeper, more wide-ranging interview with a long list of questions I sent. The result that follows exemplifies what Louis Pasteur said about chance favoring the prepared mind.There's some good stuff in the text transcript below that didn't relate as much to walkalong gliding, so I could not fit into the edited video interview above. It's interesting nevertheless.

John's site here

The complete interview is below.

Hey Slater, so what I'm going to do is run through these questions and explain who I am and what's going on. I'm the paper airplane guy. Hi, how're you doing? Normally this would be easier if Slater where here to actually ask me questions, but [delivered deadpan] the dog ate his homework, so I'm going to take these questions of the sheet you were kind enough to provide, Slater. Although I can remember hundreds of steps for paper airplanes I can't remember 8 questions in a row, so I'm going to be looking down at the questions.

So, my day job: what I do for a living is really interesting, at least to me. I am a television producer, director, editor and writer. All those little bits of TV nobody wants to watch, those are the ones I do. Commercials, infomercials, stuff like that. That's what I've been doing recently.

I've been lucky enough to be at the same station for almost 27 years now. I started out as technical director and director. I've always done voiceover work, I had a radio shift...lots of experience in the entertainment world, so maybe that[s the tie-in for working a crowd and being comfortable in front of a crowd. It's easy when you have a notion about what you're trying to communicate.

So, as a kid I loved math, loved science, loved outdoor stuff, and--for as long as I can remember--I was fascinated with flight. It's just amazing that anything can fly: a bird, a butterfly, an insect. All those things fly in different ways. We've replicated that with flying machines, which is just endlessly cool to me.

Paper airplanes were an easy way into that; inexpensive, easy to replicate, fun to work on and fun to invent your own stuff. For about 10 years I studied origami. I found that was an incredible pastime. All kinds of great things happening with origami that are not obvious: economy of resource, health care professionals will tell you it's great for small motor coordination, memorization skills (it's used in some cognitive therapies), they work with Down's Syndrome kids with paper folding exercises. So there are a number of great things about paper-folding that get your brain engaged that would be difficult to do otherwise--and certainly not as fun.

For me, paper-folding always struck a chord. I liked the accuracy required, the precision. And I liked the idea that you could take something really simple--just a piece of paper--to create amazing things, and an endless array of amazing things without cutting or ????.

I was one of the first people to take those tricks back to paper airplane making. When I wrote my first book, at that time, almost no one had done just high-performance folded paper airplanes. That was back in 1989 when I first published the Gliding Flight. People had done books that had things that sort of looked like a flying nun [editors note: yes, you read that correctly. The Flying Nun was a 1960s TV show. You can see clips on YouTube. Nuff said] or a flying fish something like that. It represented those objects well and sort of flew...a little bit.

I went the other way entirely. My things didn't look so much like objects that should fly, but they flew exceedingly well. One of the keys to the success of that book, in fact, was working at a TV station. I had a 60 foot television studio and one of the requisites was that the planes would make it all the way across that studio and hit the opposite wall with a resounding snap. Planes that did not make that did not make the cut for the book. So (laughing) my profession had a very direct impact on my paper airplane career. It upped the game.

(answering question about paper airplane activities as a kid) We lived in a really rural area. People in California will recognize Humboldt county for any number of nefarious reasons. It's become infamous for certain agricultural products. I grew up kind of on the coast in a little town called McKinleyville. It was a great place to be a kid. You could run around in the woods which was really fun. I grew up with all sorts of outdoor activities: fishing, backpacking, camping... all sorts of outdoor activities. Just a great place to be a kid. (laughing) Not a great place to be an adult. All you could do was fish or work in the woods and I wasn't physically or temperamentally suited for either one of those jobs, so I went into TV.

But as a kid the wind would come over our house from the back yard, over the roof and go whipping through the front yard. We came up with this technique of throwing paper airplanes. You'd be in the wind shadow just on the front yard side of the house and throw the plane up the face of the house and let it get caught in the wind coming off the roof. It would head out across the front yard over the street. If you had a really good throw you could get it halfway into the pasture across the road. If you had an excellent, really lucky throw it would get all the way out to this tree line that was on the far side of this pasture. That pasture was probably 3 or 4 acres so it had to get maybe a hundred yards or more to the other side of this pasture.

Then sometimes on the occasional super lucky throw we'd get out over this field and hit a thermal that was being generated from the sun hitting the dry ground and creating an updraft. The plane could occasionally make it over this really tall row of trees and it would seem like it would fly forever. That was just amazing! We started out flying a plane that was kind of a flat-bed design with a water bomb base and kind of a triangular weight system in the nose. Then I started inventing my own planes. I can remember to this day--it was a really big moment for me--inventing my own plane that got caught in a thermal and went out over the trees. From that moment on I was irreparably hooked on the idea of building and flying my own paper airplanes. I was going to be an airplane inventor from then on. I must have been 9 years old--10 at the most--when that plane went sailing completely out of site, It was a small dot, then a pin point, then completely disappeared. Just amazing! It sends chill up my spine now how far that went. Of course it had little to do with that design. Just about anything that hit that thermal was going to go that far, but that doesn't matter when you're a kid. It's all magic and it was really great.

(about acting) Well I did do some acting and I was a competitive speech person in high school and college a little bit. I've always liked to that part of what I get to do. Performing has always been fun. And being the paper airplane guy is just another extension of having fun in front of a crowd. I don't work with notes. I just work with a power point that's basically a bunch of pictures and I get to start talking about my planes and how they work and how I invented them, what my process was.

I'm always excited to explain how flight works, how paper airplanes work, how you can experience the scientific method with just a single piece of paper. Getting kids revved up about that is an amazing experience. You can tell when you're connecting with them, when it's working, and when it's not working and when it's time to move on and when it's time to tell them and when it's time to tell a bit more of the story. It's the best job that I wish that I had full-time. What I do is satisfying, creative and fun--I'm lucky to have it, but if there's room in the world for one paper airplane guy, I volunteer! I would do that full time. (anybody if you give out grants, if you’re listening...

(in answer to question about motivation) I think if you're interested in what you're trying to teach, if you have a level of expertise and you're just jazzed about it, nothing succeeds like that, and I am jazzed about paper airplanes. When I get in front of a crowd, show them what I've learned and encourage people to work on their own designs, I treasure the opportunity every time. If I had a philosophy of motivation it would be, be present when you get that opportunity to share what you know. And the energy that comes back from that, what comes back from the crowd, is a hundred times what you put out. I'm lucky, I get to do that sometimes. Really lucky.

(questions about inventing the tumbling wing) Until Slater and others started doing research I had no idea that I was the first person to do this walkalong wing notion with a tumbling piece of paper. As far as I knew, I had invented it, but I had by no means researched it.

As a kid we would play with little wooden slats that came from lattice work that would come from a trellis. It was great fun to find a broken piece of trellis and throw it. If you really threw it hard it would make this really cool buzzing sound. Then it would flutter down to the ground. And the harder you threw it, the pitch would change, it would make a great sound then reach an equilibrium and tumble--if you had the right shaped piece--pretty much tumble in a straight line to the ground. But as a kid I wasn't thinking about inventing a paper airplane design out of that. It was just really fun to throw a stick (laughs)!

So perhaps the embryo of the idea was hatched doing what any kid would do, pick up that slat, throw it and be happy with that it buzzed and tumbled down. Fast forward 20 years or so. I had learned some origami, I had written my first book when I came across

(and it was really cool to finally meet Tyler MacCready at the St. Louis SciFest--thanks for helping out with that, Slater--it's probably why I'm sitting in front of a camera in a room where nobody else is, talking into it!)

Tyler published this little article in a science magazine. It was just a little tiny article about a technology called walkalong wings. It looked impossible--super cool--and so I got one. I put it together and spent 3 months learning to fly this thing. You use this piece of cardboard and push this Styrofoam wing, generating an updraft which the plane rises in. So it took awhile. It wasn't easy, it's a skill to learn how to fly this walkalong wing that Tyler invented. Then I did a version out of paper which I put into my next book, Fantastic Flight. I played with a whole lot of designs. I did a design where you tie a strip of paper into a knot, the wing knot, which is a workable version of the walkalong wing.

I call them follow foils. I just that I decided to call them something else rather than steal Tyler's thunder. Then I was having a telephone conversation with my brother, who worked for Boeing Aerospace at the time. It occurred to me that the basic idea of the follow foil is that you're just counteracting sink rate. So I was actually thinking about a way to demonstrate that. I'm always interested in pulling apart concepts and coming up with a demonstration that really shows you how one aspect of aerodynamic theory works. To me it was interesting to separate glide ratio and sink rate, and do it in such a way that you could really get the point across.

So I thought, well, what about something that doesn't really fly but just falls slowly. As first I thought of parachutes, and then I thought "tumbling wing." That tumbling piece of wood would fly pretty much in a straight line...what about a piece of paper? And then turn one end up and one end down so it would fly in even a straighter fashion. So I was actually on the phone talking to my brother kicking around this idea. I folded a piece of paper, just regular paper, and it tumbled in a straight line. And I'm on the phone with him and I say, "Hang on a second." I got the phone book, ripped out a sheet of paper and came up with what has remained essentially unchanged. I don't think I toyed with the width very much before I put it into the Fantastic Flight manuscript.

I came up width and about the right proportions of folds for structural integrity, and flew it holding the phone to one ear (mimes using his shoulder to cradle the phone) and going with a piece of cardboard, and it flew. I remember telling ???I just invented this really cool thing, I wish you could see this. He's used to me being insane on the phone so it didn't faze him.

(I asked John to talk about his message at the end of every presentation) I have this thing that I do at the end of every presentation. The idea that you can teach science to someone and get them interested in science is an amazing idea to me. To my way of thinking we have a number of serious and real global issues that are only going to be solved with technological answers. There are global energy shortages, water shortages, this little thing called global warming and we need the best and brightest working on that stuff. Paper airplanes are a really simple way into science. The whole scientific method is right there in a paper airplane. You take a guess about what an adjustment will do, you do the adjustment--that's the experiment--you throw it, generate results, analyze what went wrong and repeat. So you've got in the simplest of flying machines the most accessible you've got the scientific method. And whether kids realize it or not, they're doing science just by folding and flying a paper airplane and experimenting with it. So I try to parlay that into an interest in science. I like to think I have an impact by that this is science, need you to think about science and we have no spare brains anywhere on the planet. We need everybody working together to solve this stuff. I would love to think that some person who comes to one of my paper airplane shows is going to invents a breakthrough in energy or resource usage or any number of those fields. I feel strongly (solving these problems) could happen but only if we act like we don't have any spare minds, that everybody's though process is valuable. If I can help do that just once, all the paper airplane presentations will have been worth it. All the traveling around, all the folding and (starts laughing) blow drying airplanes in Singapore between presentations... [John had related the rest of this anecdote to me earlier: The air conditioner failed at the Science Center in Singapore--where there is tropical humidity. He saved the day by using a hair dryer to blow dry the planes, then kept them covered until their flights!]