Toy Story

How tossing paper airplanes guided the career of an aerospace engineer.

Ken Blackburn designs small, unmanned research craft for the military and small, unmanned paper airplanes for everybody. (LAUREN BLACKBURN)
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Weighing less than a pound, BATCAM features wings with a 21-inch span that are flexible enough to wrap around its carbon graphite fuselage so the craft can be stashed in a backpack tube. (The wings spring back into shape when the UAV is removed from the tube.) The airplane’s battery-powered motor spins a propeller that pulls the GPS-guided craft a thousand feet into the air. From that vantage point, two TV cameras send images to a ground controller’s computer screen.

For all its sophistication, BATCAM looks a lot like a toy. In fact, the softly serrated trailing edge of its wing puts one in mind of Batman. But Blackburn politely rejects the notion that the miniature aircraft is a plaything.

“I think a fair number of people do have the opinion that it is more of a recreational device than a tool,” says Blackburn. “Where I became convinced otherwise is talking to soldiers and hearing them describe how it saved lives.”

Unmanned air vehicles were not a priority in the Department of Defense in the 1980s, when Blackburn began work in St. Louis with McDonnell Douglas, later acquired by Boeing. His first engineering job was on full-size aircraft like the AV-8 Harrier jump jet. Only toward the end of his 19 years in St. Louis did Blackburn lead research in UAV development.

For the paper airplane enthusiast, it was a return to building aircraft small enough to hold in his hands. Boeing’s UAV was a military “loiter craft” named Dominator, a 60-pound aircraft with a 12-foot wingspan capable of carrying several weapons. At one point, the engineering team puzzled over how to refuel Dominator in flight.

“It’s too small for a KC-135 tanker,” Blackburn drolly explains. “So what I did was to help define a concept for refueling.”

From his paper airplane tinkering, Blackburn learned to avoid preconceptions about fuselage and wing performance. “Sometimes the shapes surprise me,” he says of his hand-folded airplanes. “I think, ‘Well, this shape should do really well,’ and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I come up with a shape that I think, ‘Well, it looks good but it won’t fly well,’ and then it does fly well. You learn by doing. More than anything else, this has made me appreciate having an open mind.”

Blackburn had experimented with asymmetrical designs in paper airplanes and knew that such configurations, while not particularly maneuverable, can be stable in flight. His colleagues warmed to his unorthodox idea and asked for a demonstration.

So Blackburn carried to a meeting an oddly configured paper airplane with a stabilizing canard on the right front of the fuselage and, on the left rear, a conventional wing with an upturned tip. With a quick toss, he floated it unwobbling across the conference room and into management acceptance as a concept vehicle for a UAV tanker.

While the Dominator has yet to be deployed, the prototype set the standard for endurance and performance in small air vehicles. Its asymmetrical-winged refueler—for which Blackburn was presented a Boeing Meritorious Invention Award—remains on the drawing board.

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