A Brief History
As a kid I always loved airplanes, and when I was about 10 years old I found several books in the local library which showed me some new types of interesting paper airplanes. Soon I was trying to create my own paper planes, and one design I created when I was 13 years old was great at flying high, and circling down. A few years later I discovered in The Guinness Book of Records the record for time aloft for paper airplanes was 15 seconds - I realized I had a chance. After years of part time practice, my college dorm mates finally put me up to it - and with their help I set my first record in November 1983 in Reynolds Coliseum at 16.89 seconds. A few years later I had become an aeronautical engineer working for McDonnell Douglas in St Louis, and I got a call from a TV show, asking if I could reset my record. The first record requires several weeks of intense preparation for my arm and planes - and the filming date would just give me enough time. Several weeks later in 1987 I had set my second record, but just barely, at 17.2 seconds. In 1993 my first paper airplane book, The World Record Paper Airplane Book, was about to be published, and I got a call from the BBC asking if I could reset the record again for one of their TV shows. This time I knew I would need even more time to prepare for a better plane and a stronger throw. After about 2 months of lifting weights, and after fine tuning dozens of planes I was ready. In February of 1994 I reset my paper airplane record at 18.8 seconds in a hanger at JFK airport in New York. Later that year I continued my weight training and constructed 100 more planes to make a effort to break the 20 second barrier. Late in 1994 I had a flight time of 20.88 seconds again in Reynolds Coliseum for a Public Television TV show. The reply letter from Guinness stunned me - they had a new set of rules for the record, one of which requires continuous video coverage of the flight. The video footage from the TV show kept the camera on me, capturing only the launch and the last few seconds of flight. Despite many witnesses, the record was denied. In 1996 the BBC once again invites me to try to reset my record, this time on live TV in London with 20 other teams competing. Although I win the contest with a flight time of 17.3 seconds, two individuals, Chris Edge and Andy Currey, continue working with their planes, and set a new record of 20.9 seconds on July 28, 1996. The record did not appear in the Guinness Book until the 1998 edition, setting the stage for my quest to regain the record.
This wasn't going to be easy. If successful, it would be my forth time at setting the record. Each time was the absolute I could achieve, with improvements resulting from improving my planes and from working on a faster throw. My best unofficial time, 20.88 seconds, was the product of months of working out and well over 100 airplanes constructed. And I have another enemy sneaking up on me as well - time. I am 35 years old, and soon I know my arm speed is likely to decrease.
I discovered Edge and Curry had officially reset the record in mid January 1998 when I picked up a new Guinness book at a book store. After a little thinking and planning, I knew it would take at least six months of daily preparation to have a chance of resetting the record. My plan was to construct from 5 to 10 planes a week, initially trying radical changes, progressively narrowing in on the best paper airplane design for a record attempt. Much of my workouts for my arm would come from test flying the weekly planes, but in addition I planned on about 3 workouts a week at the gym. Initially my workouts would concentrate on strengthening my rotator cuff muscles, as I hurt my shoulder in the past from too much throwing too rapidly. My routine settled in on switching back and forth daily between workouts in the gym, and workouts throwing planes, and usually taking a day off most weeks to rest my arm.
The designs I tried included some all new designs, but I still had the most luck with my original design that I had invented as a 13 year old kid. Along the way I found ways to make the design fly a little better, and a little more consistently. First its real important to keep the wing as flat as possible, so I would press the side of a pen against every fold as the plane is made in order to keep the folds as flat as possible. Second I tried making the folds a little wider and narrower until I found just the right width - the width of the folds determines exactly where the plane balances, and this was a bigger effect than I expected. Third I "prefolded" the paper in a pattern to add crease marks on the wing. As many people know, the dimples on a golf ball reduce the drag of the golf ball, and these creases served the same function. Most people think once I know the design, I only need to fold one plane. In reality every paper airplane flies differently and out of 100 planes perhaps 50 would fly over 16 seconds, 20 over 18 seconds, and 5 over 20 seconds. That is why I needed to make several hundred planes, not only to improve the design, but to find the best airplane using the best design. In April I had sent a letter to Guinness to make sure I had the newest rules. I got a reply in September - with a new set of rules. Fortunately the only rule change that had a direct impact is the requirement of no more than 25 mm by 30 mm of tape. The planes I had been using to that point were using nearly twice that amount. I began constructing quite a few more planes, as i knew the attempt was approaching. I had built about 200 planes with the excessive amount of tape, and built about 70 more with the legal amount - I took the best 20 of those with me for the attempt in Atlanta.
I had just begun my workouts when I had a conversation with my sister about a friend of hers that was a professional athletic trainer. Dorri Buckholtz worked as a trainer and strengthening coach for the Bolleterri Tennis School and worked with Pete Sampras and Mary Pierce, to name just two people she helped. She was extremely helpful, sending me detailed instructions for whole set of exercises which would improve my throwing speed. The workouts were simple enough to accomplish at home (thanks for the giant rubber band Dorri) in about an hour. Most use high repetitions exercising muscle groups in my upper body and shoulders. During my training I went on a cruise to Alaska - I took the rubber band with me and performed the exercises in my cabin in the ship, and even got to practice throwing paper airplanes in the large mall in Anchorage. I also used my paper airplane testing to work on my form and technique for throwing. As you can see in the picture at the top of this page, it is a little awkward, and it is real important to concentrate on doing all the right things in rapid succession for the best throw possible. By the time I arrived in Atlanta, the proper throwing technique had become automatic, and was one less thing to worry about for the record attempt. I really can't thank Dorri enough, without her sharing her expertise, I don't know if I would have been successful in Atlanta.
Ideally I should practice indoors in order to get consistent flying times to verify how each plane, and my progress in general, is going. My primary flying site was a large assembly area at Boeing in a building adjacent to where I work. I had used this same area to practice for my 1994 record and 1996 contest. I quickly ran into two problems. First the floor space was not as vacant as in the past - the final assembly for the navy's next generation of fighter - the F/A-18E/F was planned for the area. Second my throws and planes were better than ever, and now were regularly hitting the lights and beams 45 feet above the floor, and even once hitting the ceiling at 60 feet above the floor. These factors resulted in many of my best flights hitting a beam near the ceiling, or equipment near the floor, and many of my best planes were lost forever on top of beams or ventilation ducts. I searched over the entire St. Louis area for a better practice facility, without luck. As my training progressed into summer I began practicing outside. The problem with the great outdoors is weather and air currents. I tried to throw near sunset to minimize the air currents, but still ended up with flights over 1 minute several times, and a 2 minute flight once. This makes determining the exact flight performance of each plane difficult. I ended up marking on each plane the flight times I got, and the most consistently good planes I would take to Atlanta. I knew my best planes were flying just over 20 seconds, but by how much? Flights over 25 seconds were infrequent, so I attributed those to air currents. I would not know for sure until I arrived in Atlanta to set the record.
Finding a facility for the record was another challenge. There were only 2 buildings in St Louis large enough for me to not worry about ceilings or walls - the New Kiel Arena (where the St Louis Blues hockey team plays) and the Trans World Dome (where the Rams football team plays). Contact with both facilities yielded a possible date of November 22nd at the Trans World Dome - the Rams thought they might let me onto the field following the game that day. I was also hoping for a practice day to ensure everything was prepared, but beggars can't be choosy. I also got a lead on a Boeing Hanger in Wichita from Denny Lammers (yes, a relative of the co-author of my paper airplane books) - this was a good backup, but my Atlanta connection also came through with an ideal facility. I contacted my sister Jackie and her husband Jack in Atlanta - they knew the manager of the Georgia Dome (where the Atlanta Falcons football team plays), and thought it might be available. The manager was enthusiastic, and had me coordinate the event with Mary Kathern Hiller, the event coordinator at the Georgia Dome. A date of October 8th was set, with a practice day of October 7th. Mary Kathern was extremely helpful, and seemed to go the extra mile to make sure everything would be in place for the record. Not only did I have a facility beyond my dreams, but people working there who were extremely helpful!
The Georgia dome provides the ideal venue for my record attempt - but it introduced the challenge of organizing official timers, photographers, and media at a location 500 miles from home. Lucky for me, my sister Jackie Tyson lives in Atlanta and is president of Peleton Sports, which among other things coordinates sports events and media coverage. Also I had Meghan Rowe, my publicist at Workman Publishing, working to arrange media coverage. This may seem trivial, but Guinness requires media coverage, video tape, and pictures, as well as two designated officials known as Scrutineers (a British term - really). Everything was set - now I only had to actually set the record.
Wednesday October 7th was my practice day. This would provide me the opportunity to find the correct entrance to the Georgia Dome, verify no air currents, and most importantly an opportunity to finally see which of my planes was best, and how long they actually fly. I was greeted by Mary Kathern, as with all our phone conversations and for the rest of the event, she was extremely helpful. Words can't describe how overwhelmed I was as I entered. One of the largest rooms in the world, silent and still, awaiting two days of paper airplane flying - just for me! Soon after I started practicing, I discovered I had a potential problem. Outside it was raining, and with no events planned and the ventilation turned off, the humidity from outdoors had filtered indoors as well. Humidity is the mortal enemy of paper airplanes, making their wings limp, and turning record setting planes into worthless lumps of paper. The humidity was not a complete show stopper, but I could tell it was affecting my planes. After an hour of intensive testing, only two planes had flown beyond the existing record, and both by less than a second. I returned to my sister's house somewhat satisfied I could break the record, but with any more humidity maybe not. Time would tell.
Thursday October 8th started cloudy and very humid. I picked up my Tupperware containers (Tupperware makes a great waterproof, crushproof, paper airplane hanger) and headed down to the Georgia Dome with my sister and parents who had traveled from North Carolina to witness the event. As we approached the Dome, the clouds appeared to be lifting, so perhaps the humidity was improving. As we walked indoors, the media was there to meet us. CNN had a camera crew there, as well as a few local TV crews. While I waited for everyone to arrive, I took out one of my backup planes and made some practice throws to warm up my arm, and to allow the media some close up views of my launch. That particular plane was flying no better than the prior day, but the air did seem a little less humid. Next I met the Scrutineers, went over the rules, and showed them my planes. Show time.
The rules allow just 10 official throws, so first I took out my best plane from the day before to make practice throws and make the fine tuning adjustments needed to get it to fly just right. This particular plane seemed less stable than the rest, with extremely small adjustments making the difference between 20 second flights and 4 second crashes. At first the plane was flying poorly (times no better than 15 seconds), but with more adjustments the practice times finally exceeded 20 seconds. I made sure the Scrutineers were ready, and the press went back to the sideline. I stood alone at he center of the field, brain barely working, cameras rolling. I gave it my best throw - it flew fairly erratically, but I knew it was a good flight. I waited for the official news of the time as the Scrutineers compared their times. 21.3 seconds - a new record! What a relief. I told the officials I would use all 10 throws allowed to get the best time possible. The second throw went straight up - and straight down. After a small adjustment, another good flight - this time 23.1 seconds! Throw number 4 was another dud, but number five had a great launch and transition to slow flight. 24.2 seconds! At this point I could hardly believe what had happened. Only five minutes before I was really thinking I might not be able to reset the record. Throw number 6 was a dud, and throws 7 and 8 were both a little short of 20 seconds, and throw 9 was another dud. I had noticed that my best times resulted if my throw was just a little off from straight up, so I decided to intentionally throw a little to one side. The officials and press were ready. This was my last throw - I gave it all I had. This time it was a great throw, and had a great transition to slow flight. The flight down was a little erratic, with the wings rocking and the plane on the verge of a stall. When it landed I knew it was a long flight, but longer than 24.2 seconds? I heard the time as I walked over to retrieve my plane. 27.6 seconds! YES! Better than I had ever hoped or dreamed. Afterwards I spoke with the media, signed books and paper planes, and thanked all the people who made the event possible. With some luck, help, and hard work, the summit had been reached.
I submitted the video and newspaper clippings, and statements from the Scrutineers to Guinness, and received official notification from Guinness on April 30th, 1999 that my record has become official. I have a feeling I may have just retired from setting records - but no one knows what the future might hold.
Just click on a picture to see a larger version. These pictures
are in no particular order.
After the record CNN added a page to their web site for the record . Click HERE to try going there.
Scrutineers Karen Rosen and Jerry Hulshult on looking with the media.
Scrutineers, Jack Tyson, and Steven on far right.
Mary Kathern Hiller, my parents Lynn and Paul, and Cathy Tyson
Everyone on the field.
Plane in flight against the roof of the Georgia Dome.
Walking back to the center of the field after retrieving the plane.
Future record holders watching plane in flight.
Scrutineers recording an official flight time.
May your skies be blue, and you humidity low.
Never give up on your dreams.