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Paper Airplane Record

The front page feature article in today’s Wall Street Journal raises a provocative question: should the world record in paper airplane flight distance be held by the individual who can design, build, and throw a paper airplane the farthest, or should designer-thrower duos be eligible as well? This is not an abstract question. At the end of February, designer John Collins teamed with former Cal quarterback Joe Ayoob to build and sail a plane 226 feet and 10 inches, breaking the record of 207 feet, 4 inches set in 2003 by then-fifteen-year-old Stephen Krieger.

This would be a good time for me to note that I know Stephen. He is a recent graduate from the math department at the university. I never had him in a class, but a few summers ago he was one of the teaching assistant/counselors in the summer program I help run for talented high school students. At the opening orientation, as part of the counselor introductions, a surprising fact was revealed about each one. Stephen’s fact: he was the Guinness World Record holder for paper airplane flight.

Who knew there even was such a category? Though I suppose it’s natural enough. More to the point, given the hundreds of millions (billions?) of paper airplane throwers in the world, I couldn’t believe that the record holder was a colleague.

No more.

Stephen, ever the good sport, was on hand for the record-breaking throw. From the WSJ article:

Stephen Kreiger had lived through many attempts to overtake his world record for flight. But he watched with resignation in February as a challenger prepared to unseat him using an unorthodox strategy.

Mr. Kreiger had held since 2003 the Guinness World Record for throwing a paper airplane the farthest. He had won it at age 15, after a summer’s preparing by toning his throwing arm.

But here was 51-year-old John Collins at the end of the empty Air Force hangar in Sacramento, Calif., preparing for the flight of a newly folded plane he had designed, having not worked out at all.

And his plane was in the hands of a ringer: a large 27-year-old man with a buff arm.

The stand-in, Joe Ayoob, wound up and rifled the plane in a long, towering arch that came as little surprise: Mr. Ayoob, as a University of California-Berkeley quarterback, logged more than 1,700 passing yards in 2005.

“Competitive paper airplane flying had always been, in my mind, what can one person do with one piece of paper,” says Mr. Kreiger, a 23-year-old engineer. Using a ringer, he says, is problematic: “I don’t really think that’s the spirit of the competition.”

Guinness World Records NA Inc. thought otherwise. Mr. Ayoob’s throw, immortalized on YouTube, sailed 226 feet and 10 inches, breaking Mr. Kreiger’s record of 207 feet, 4 inches. Guinness in March named him and Mr. Collins the record holders.

A Guinness spokeswoman says there was no internal debate about giving Mr. Collins credit. But some paper-plane purists are still aflutter.

Paper-plane enthusiasts have traditionally seen theirs as an individual sport. The question now: Is Mr. Collins’s ringer a bad precedent, or has he ushered in a new era in which designers can focus on better paper folds instead of muscle tone?

It is serious business for paper-plane people, who compete with intensity in a discipline otherwise mostly seen as a hobby for kids or classroom slackers.

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