Because the judging was based on how well the planes flew, almost all the entries were sent with launching instructions. "Throw hard and straight," read one set. "Lunge forward as you throw," read another. "Our favorite," says Fujino, "was a plane from Alaska with 22 pages of handwritten directions. We dubbed them 'The Flight Manual.' " The Japanese wrote detailed information in English right on their planes, followed by a note that said, "If you can read Japanese, read these directions," and then gave even more specific details in Japanese characters. "I suppose that if you spend 175 hours making a paper airplane, like one contestant did, you're allowed a little bit of personal paranoia about some strange judge trashing it," says Fujino.
When it came down to whose planes flew the farthest and longest, it was the construction more than the launching that counted. Most of the Japanese designs were "laminated," or coated with glue, a legal technique that gave the planes more stability as well as added weight. The most successful entries had wings and tail fins modeled after those on real planes. The two winning American designs were even simpler. Sixty-three year-old Robert Meuser's plane looked like a conventional paper dart, and flew 141'4" to win the nonprofessional division of the distance category—the same event he'd won in the first contest 18 years earlier with a different model. "You tweak one wing a hundredth of an inch, or the humidity changes, and an elaborate design can be thrown off," says Meuser, a veteran of model-plane building and a contributor to Model Aviation magazine. "Still, a person shouldn't get too serious about paper airplanes."
Eltin Lucero's plane, winner in the junior (age 14 and under) division of the distance category, proved Meuser's point. Eltin, a sixth-grader from Pueblo, Colo., came up with a perfect design by accident. "He just took an 8� X 12� piece of paper and folded it, like most people would," says Fujino. "And the farthest he was able to fly it at home before entering it was 22 feet. But our judges were adults with good arms." So good, in fact, that Eltin's craft flew 114'8".
Two weeks later, that other group of paper-airplane pilots crowded the top level of Seattle's Kingdome, hoping to be as lucky as Eltin. They weren't, though. The year before, Joe Bean, 16, of Renton, Wash, had thrown a plane into a circle marked WALT DISNEY WORLD. But this year he was having his problems. "I guess there's a lot of luck involved," Joe sighed, while folding yet another plane. "I've gotten planes close to the Disney World circle again, but then they keep turning. There's some kind of air current down on the field. Someone should close the doors." Eventually, John Vincent, a 33-year-old Australian who works for Boeing, flew his plane closer to the circle than anyone else and won the Walt Disney World trip.
"The Japanese call paper airplaning a sport," says Fujino, watching the Indoor Paper Airplane festivities. "But for Americans, it involves a different kind of competitive sense than a lot of sports we play. Throwing a paper airplane can be personal and lyrical. It's part fantasy and part escape. In a few minutes' time, it's a way to rise above the humdrum."