At Purdue University, the school that produced over a dozen NASA astronauts, the aeronautical engineering department has a tradition: Each year during the walk to the graduation ceremony, the dozen or so graduates hide paper airplanes under their black gowns.
For Aeros, as we are more commonly known on Indiana’s West Lafayette campus, once the mortar board tassels are turned from right to left to signify graduation, we slip the airplanes out of our robes and launch them into Elliott Hall.
When told of this tradition as freshmen, my classmates and I had dreamed of elaborate paper airplanes, remote-controlled with powerful motors that could keep the folded contraptions aloft for days. But four years of hypersonics homework and rocket propulsion projects had buried the memory of that final design assignment. With only a week until graduation, most of us resigned ourselves to a standard paper airplane, with the possible addition of a few carefully placed paperclips for weight.
I, however, had a trick up my sleeve. While my classmates had interned at places like NASA and Lockheed Martin, I spent the summer at the Institute of Paper Science and Technology in Atlanta, Georgia. Seldom did the study of paper aerodynamics come up, but I returned to Purdue with a knowledge of paper grading, weight, and strength.
I might never climb into the cockpit of an F-16 or guide a space shuttle to a landing, but I knew I could build the best paper airplane ever to fly over the mortar boards of Purdue University. And our new president wasn’t just any academic. He was Martin Jischke, a Ph.D. in aeronautical and astronautical engineering.
I left the fancy folding to origami artists and went about modifying other aspects of the classic delta design. A heavy-duty manila cardboard, used for file folders, would provide strength and prevent flutter and the attendant loss of lift and stability. I had to push the center of gravity in front of the airplane’s center of pressure. Paper clips might have done the trick if I had been using standard paper, but I needed something with more weight. Quarters were too cumbersome. Pennies were too lightweight. A nickel was perfect. If the coin was placed at just the right point along the rib of the airplane, I could send the aircraft across my bedroom on a glide that Chesley Sullenberger would be proud of. The final touch: upturned winglets to reduce parasite drag and increase range.
On graduation day, I was careful to avoid any direct questions about the airplane, shrugging off inquiries with “Oh, I just folded some copy paper.”
My classmates and I stood shoulder to shoulder as President Jischke announced, “The School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.” We moved our tassels over and pulled out our airplanes. Students, parents, and professors pointed and laughed as a dozen paper airplanes flitted, twirled, and zipped through the hall.
One took off as though propelled by tiny turbofans, sailed over the heads of the Purdue deans who lined the stage, banked as if to show off its sleek design and solid engineering, then slid gracefully to the feet of Martin Jischke. All the Aeros had seen where it came from. They looked down the aisle at me as Jischke examined the airplane and set it at the top of his podium.
I watched Purdue’s 10th president pick up my creation, the product of four and a half years of study and a summer of research. I only hoped that he would recognize the thought behind the design. Would he notice the angle of the ailerons, positioned to give a slight positive pitch moment? Or maybe he would appreciate how the delta wing prevented stall at high angles of attack?
While the laughter throughout the hall died down, he examined the airplane, held it up to the lights, and leaned toward the microphone. “As a professor of aeronautics,” he said, setting the craft on top of his podium, “I give it a C, at best.”