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Submitted by on Mar 29, 2022

paper plane is a toy aircraft built of a single folded sheet of paper or paperboard, commonly a glider. A paper dart is a basic nose-heavy paper aircraft that is thrown like a dart.

The origins of folded paper gliders are widely attributed to Ancient China, while there is evidence that refining and development of folded gliders occurred in Japan as well. Certainly, paper was manufactured on a large scale in China around 500 BCE, and origami and paper folding were popular within a century of this time, around 460-390 BCE. It’s hard to say where and how the first paper planes were made, or even what the first paper plane looked like.

Paper airplanes were the dominating man-made heavier-than-air craft for about a thousand years after that, with principles that could be easily understood but not extraordinary performance when gliding over long distances due to their high drag coefficients. To construct bigger machines, the forefathers of powered flight studied paper model airplanes. Leonardo described making a model plane out of parchment and using paper models to test some of his early ornithopter, or flapping-winged aircraft, and parachute designs. Following that, in the late 1800s, Sir George Cayley investigated the performance of paper gliders. Clément Ader, Prof. Charles Langley, and Alberto Santos-Dumont, for example, tested concepts with paper and balsa models to check (in scale) their theories before putting them into reality.

Many other designers have modified and extended the paper model throughout time, and it is now widely used as a key tool in aircraft design. In 1909, one of the first known modern paper planes was built (as in compound construction and many other aerodynamic advances).

Theodore von Kármán rejected Ludwig Prandtl’s building of a paper airplane at the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics banquet in 1924 as an artless exercise:

Prandtl was also a little rash. My sister, who sat next to him at the table, asked him a question on the physics of flying at a pretty elegant dinner gathering following a conference in Delft, Holland. He began to explain; in the process, he picked up a paper menu and fashioned a miniature model airplane, completely oblivious to the fact that he was in the middle of nowhere. My sister and others at the banquet were embarrassed when it landed on the French Minister of Education’s shirtfront.

Paper planes were used as test models for bigger aircraft by Jack Northrop (co-founder of Lockheed Corporation) in 1930. Designers at Heinkel and Junkers in Germany employed paper models to develop fundamental performance and structural forms in significant projects like the Heinkel 111 and Junkers 88 tactical bomber programs during the Great Depression.

Even while origami aircraft have gained many new and fascinating designs over the years, and have gained much in terms of flight performance, paper model aircraft have developed significant sophistication and extremely high flying performance far distant from their origami roots.

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