How Making Paper Airplanes Became John Collins Full Time Job
John Collins IS the Paper Airplane Guy. He holds The Guinness World Record for the farthest flight by a paper aircraft, at 226 feet and 10 inches. John grew up loving paper airplanes, and now, they are his full-time career. Here’s his story, adapted from an interview John gave to a radio podcast, Our American Stories.
John started like most people do, at the age of 8 or 9, with the regular dart design that most people make. He would play around with the design and try out different folds and flights with his brothers. His mom knew a lot about origami. So, he took some inspiration from the waterbomb origami base. And then, he was off and running making paper airplanes. John was just a little bit better than his siblings at folding and creasing, so he could tell early on it would be a success niche for him.
The idea to reach for a world record came along pretty soon after John had been folding a lot of designs. He pushed as far as he could coming up with folding techniques on his own. In 4th grade, he drew some additional inspiration from an origami book that a teacher had brought in for class. There were reverse folds, petal folds, and more, and it opened up many ideas and techniques. For the next ten years, John continued developing his skills.
After that, John had a pretty solid collection of planes. But hadn’t yet thought about a venue and how to get a world record off the ground. Twenty-five years later, after writing a few books and wondering how to get more sales, he realized that obtaining a world record would prove his concept and lead to much more. His first step was to find someone who could throw the plane he folded and designed. It was a humbling experience figuring out how to make the planes durable enough for those who could throw it hard enough.
John searched and tried out several different options for good throwers. Then he found, Joe, who ended up being the perfect person to work with. Joe went from being a baseball pitcher to a football quarterback. He had experience in changing his throw to match the sport.
The previous record for paper airplane distance was 207 feet and 4 inches. That record holder held it for almost 10 years. It’s about as long as John and Joe have now held the record. The previous plane design resembled a javelin dart. It didn’t fly so much as it did just shoot in a straight line. After trying with similar designs, John and Joe changed the design to more of a glider. Which brought its own challenges with accuracy and precision. Joe and John worked through it.
Guinness World Records are very specific in regard to record requirements, such as paper size and thickness, and even how much tape you can use, down to the millimeter. They were not specific, however, about whether the plane designer had to be the one that actually threw the plane. The old record holder was not happy with that lack of stipulation. But Guinness seemed to like the idea, it broadened access. The thought that the plane glided through the distance, rather than crashing into it as before, was also very appealing. It was thrilling. And the paper aircraft actually flew more like a regular flight machine, rather than just a dart.
The approach was unique, and so was the design of the plane. It’s probably the most complicated paper airplane that John had ever designed. It’s simple folding, but adjusting it to get world record distance was fascinating. Around the same time, NASA was verifying John’s own suppositions about airplane speed, and aerodynamics. So John had good experimental evidence to support his aspirations.
Earning the World Record was a three-year journey for John, even though he had dreamt about it his whole life. His thrower, Joe, was involved the last 18 months. The first glider John folded, ended up being the correct folding solution. But a lot more testing was required to confirm. So, it didn’t cut down on any work of their work ahead. John even had an unsuccessful first attempt at earning the recording, in August 2011. And he ended up earning the world record in February of 2012. Coming off the August defeat, John’s friends and family were telling him to take a break. But he didn’t let up.
Starting on January 1, at a new hangar, there was no time they didn’t break the record three out of ten tries. For the record attempt, ten attempts are allowed. It was during the practice sessions they were getting three out of ten tries consistently. The drama wasn’t whether they would break the record, it was how much were they going to break it by? But regardless, the day to attempt to break the record still held a lot of angst. There was press involved, surveyors, camera operators, judges, and more, not to mention a lot of pressure to actually do it, and in one unedited take.
Their first two throws were premature, the third was okay, but on throw number four, they broke the record! If you listen to the video, it’s just clear they were going to make the record. The crowd gets excited, and it lifts up with the last third to go, and flies across the rope lights, and the crowd goes wild! It was everything you would want out of a world record moment, it was perfect.
John is incredibly proud of his world record. It took a lot of work, and a different kind of work than he expected going into the process. While it doesn’t save the world at the end of the day, it’s just a fun thing and does attract a lot of energy and sense of accomplishment that comes from nothing else. When someone asks John, should I shoot for my dreams, John’s advice is Go Big, or Go Home! You’ll learn so much about yourself. And whether or not you actually do it, it’s important to at least strive for it.
The last four or five years since John became The Paper Airplane Guy, he has enjoyed living his dream. There’s no one else in the world that gets to fold paper airplanes for a living. He enjoys also getting to meet and inspire youth who are curious about the science and the invisible forces of flight (such as gravity and thrust). Some of it, you must take on belief. John sees it as his job to reveal the solid underpinnings for how it all works to make something that flies. He sees it as a real gift to be able to get to do something he has been fascinated by for his entire life, for a living.
Passing along his passion for the wonder of flight in all aspects, including in biology and science, and the ability to take something modest (like a piece of paper) and being able to make it fly, is very cool for John. And the idea that the knowledge can be transmitted to another, is something he loves. He also enjoys seeing the work he has inspired from youth. Some part of a person has joined the magic world of flight. He doesn’t know how you can get a better job than that.
If you would like John to visit your school, in-person or virtually to teach your students how to fold and fly the world-record paper airplane and hear John’s story of his achievements, read more about John’s STEM School Assembly, The Paper Airplane Guy. Contact us for pricing/dates: email@example.com, 800-883-9883, or fill out and submit our request for information form.