On the afternoon of June 9 at Seattle's Kingdome, thousands of people threw paper onto the field from the upper deck. Nothing would stop them.
No harm done, though. The occasion was the eighth annual World Indoor Paper Airplane Championships. Actually, the title is a bit misleading. The WIPAC isn't really global, or even particularly competitive, but just a wacky Seattle tradition dreamed up in 1978 by a local councilman. This year's championships drew 5,000 people (admission was free) to the Kingdome's top level. There competitors folded 11 X 17-inch sheets of printed bond into many varieties of paper-airplane muster, wrote their names on them, took aim at fluorescent circles marked on the artificial turf below and let fly. If a plane landed in a circle, its thrower would win a corresponding prize, perhaps a Ronald McDonald wrist-watch or an all-expenses-paid trip to Walt Disney World. And if a plane flew through the open sunroof of a Volkswagen Golf, its pilot would win the car. (Nobody did.) Since entrants had to make planes from paper sold by tournament sponsors to benefit a local food bank (three sheets for a dollar), each toss also helped a worthy cause.
Meanwhile, eight serious paper-plane buffs—six from Japan, two from the U.S.—were standing quietly down by second base. All had been winners in another event, The Second Great International Paper Airplane Contest, held in the Kingdome in late May. Now they were back in Seattle to receive their medals and submit their craft to an exhibition launch or two before the frenzied WIPAC crowd.
The earlier contest had been on a somewhat higher plane than this event and had been sponsored by Seattle's Museum of Flight, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, the National Science Foundation, Science 85 magazine, White Wings—a Japanese brand of paper glider—and Japan Air Lines. Responding to ads in The New York Times, wire-service stories and Voice of America shortwave broadcasts, more than 5,000 entrants from 21 countries had built planes and mailed them to the Museum of Flight. Each craft had to be constructed entirely of paper (glue and tape were allowed for bonding) but was not limited by length, weight or design. The contest judges—mostly retired pilots who had both knowledge of aerodynamics and good throwing arms—brought the planes to the Kingdome to toss them during three days of competition. The judges looked for winners in such categories as time aloft, distance traveled, aerobatic ability and appearance in the air.
For a craft to win, it had to be something out of the ordinary. "Since child, hobby," explained one victor, 45-year-old Akio Kobayashi of Tokyo, when a reporter asked him why he liked building and throwing paper bombers. Kobayashi's plane—only 9" nose to tail, 8�" wingtip to wingtip, 2�" high—looked like the sort of glider you'd find in a cereal box, but it was actually an aerodynamic masterpiece. Entered in the professional division of the distance category ("professional" because Kobayashi is an engineer), it flew 122'8"—16 feet farther than its nearest competitor in that category and 2'8" farther than the Wright brothers' plane flew back in 1903.
"My greatest pleasure is to see something I've made fly in the sky," translated an interpreter for Masakatsu Omori of Fukuoka, Japan, a university student whose studies in aerodynamics helped him win the professional esthetics category. Omori's paper plane, only seven inches from edge to edge and eight inches from nose to tail, resembled a M�bius strip. Instead of merely flying, it had fluttered—as delicately as a lotus blossom wafting on a breeze—for eight seconds before descending, to the judges' aaahs and applause.
What did all this paper-airplane business add up to? If nothing else, it brought a number of the pastime's many enthusiasts out of the woodwork. Says the Museum of flight's Ali Fujino, "Throughout history, there's been little said about paper planes. The Chinese had a related interest in kites, of course. And Leonardo da Vinci wrote about paper flight, but he didn't make any drawings of paper aircraft." In fact, adds Fujino, the only book on the subject until recently was Paper Planes, a 1939 collection of essays by Englishman H.G.G. Herklots. But the event's success indicates that anyone interested in writing a book on the subject might consider beginning work at once. At last, the field may be crowding.
Still, when Fujino began to organize The Second Great International Airplane Contest as a way of promoting the Museum of Flight's development drive, she wasn't sure there would be much interest. The first contest, sponsored by Scientific American magazine in 1967 at the site of the New York World's Fair that had taken place there two years earlier, attracted 11,000 entries. The next year, though, the competition was discontinued; it had simply been too much work to pull together. "Ever since," Fujino says, "there have been small regional or college contests periodically around the country, but nothing very organized."
But she had forgotten about the Japanese. "I went to Japan on vacation and discovered this hotbed of paper-airplane activity there," Fujino says. "The Japanese actually have little amalgams of fliers called Paper Airplane Sport Clubs. And paper planes are so popular that Dr. Yasuaki Ninonmiya, the sensei [master] of the movement, has written an eight-volume set of books on paper-airplane flight and his designs, called Collection of High Performance Paper Planes. He also has two condominiums in Tokyo, something really rare with living space at so great a premium. One condo is for him, and the other houses his 600 airplanes." Not surprisingly, the number of Japanese entries in The Second Great International Airplane Contest was second only to that of the United States.
What was surprising, though, was how creative or technically ornate many of the planes were. Adam and Jack Hansen of Newcastle, Maine planned theirs with the help of a Macintosh computer. An entry called The Flying Pineapple looked exactly like what its name suggests. There was a "suicide plane," which had taped to it a match and a note reading, "If I don't win, do the honorable thing." (The judges didn't.) Two entries from Mr. G. Pumple of Calgary, Alberta, made out of what he called "British toilet paper," were so light they didn't even register on the contest's scales. James Zongker, an aeronautical engineer for the Boeing Company in Wichita, Kans., worked 75 hours building a detailed model of an F-14 Tomcat from index cards and white bond. A plane shaped like a napkin ring came in from Saudi Arabia. Seattle resident Jeff Brown's Flying Lizard, one of the two largest planes entered in the contest, had a wing-span of three feet, while New Yorker Howard Fink's plane, the smallest, was only an inch long, with a 1�" wingspan. Even Utah Senator Jake Garn got into the act, submitting as an honorary entry the first paper airplane flown in space; Garn had flown it during his Space Shuttle voyage in April.