Monday, 2 July 2012

Elephant No. 274: Paper Airplanes

If there are two things I don't do well, they are folding paper, and engineering anything. I'm quite good at making a couple of basic paper airplanes, however, so I decided I would at least try to produce an elephant-evoking paper airplane today.

Paper gliders are thought to have originated in Ancient China, possibly developing in Japan at the same time. By 500 B.C., coinciding with the wide availability of paper, paper folding was common in the Far East, although it is unknown whether gliders were part of this tradition, or what they may have looked like.

For the next thousand years or so, paper aircraft were produced in various forms. Many of the pioneers of powered aircraft actually studied the principles of paper aircraft when designing larger versions. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, built his first model flying machine of parchment, and tested some of his flapping-wing ornithopters with paper models. Well into the late nineteenth century A.D., various aviation pioneers were still building test versions of their aircraft in paper and balsa wood.

Leonardo da Vinci's design for an ornithopter, ca. 1490.

The Wright Brothers were particularly significant users of paper aircraft. Between 1899 and 1903, when they made their first powered flight, they used a wind tunnel to test a wide range of paper models. Interestingly, paper models are still important to understanding the principles behind basic aircraft design.

Paper has a higher density than balsa wood, and paper airplanes thus have a higher drag than paper. Paper has a higher strength-to-thickness ration than balsa wood, however, actually approximating the strength (to scale) of aircraft-grade aluminum sheet metal.


Today, paper aircraft can be folded, diecut, glued and even propelled by a rubber bands and paper clips. Paper aircraft have become extremely sophisticated in recent years, including everything from helicopters and zeppelins to gliders and jets. There are also many serious competitions around the world to see who can design the aircraft that flies the farthest, fastest or most accurately, as well as the most unusual and even the most beautiful.

There may even be a paper airplane launched from Space one day. In March 2008, a Space-bound prototype passed a durability test in a wind tunnel. Japan's Space agency considered a launch from the International Space Station, but the paper plane's developers, Takuo Toda and Shinji Suzuki, postponed the attempt after deciding that it would be impossible to track the planes during their weeklong journey to Earth, and that they would be unlikely to survive a likely flaming descent through Earth's atmosphere.

In February 2011, however, 200 planes were launched from a net below a weather balloon, 23 miles above Germany. The planes were designed to maintain a stable flight, even in wind gusts up to 100 miles per hour. The planes had memory chips from which data could be uploaded, and were ultimately found in Europe, North America and even Australia.

There are many, many paper airplane designs available online and in books, but of course nothing that could really be called an elephant. Instead, I looked for airplanes that could either be turned into an elephant with some slight modifications, or that had at least some resemblance to an elephant.

The first design I settled on is called a "trint", which to me looked like a flattened elephant head, including small tusks. From the instructions, it looked like complicated origami. And I am truly hopeless at origami.

Trint paper airplane.

To make this particular airplane, you need these instructions, followed by these instructions.

For this first elephant airplane, I chose bright purple paper. I followed the instructions for as long as I could. I then got to a point where I just didn't understand what I was looking at anymore, nor how to fold it. I tried my best, but it was useless. This is how far I got before I was hopelessly confused.

So I decided to improvise. Ultimately, I did end up with something that looked like a very abstract elephant, and something that does actually fly. It sort of hangs in the air, probably held up simply by the strength of the air mass underneath it, then takes an abrupt nosedive.

I think I got about twelve feet out of it on my best throw indoors, using the mouth bit below to launch it. It doesn't look terribly aerodynamic, and is quite bottom-heavy, so even this was a big victory to me. I thought about trying this outside, but it's very windy, so I suspected it would fly upside-down and sideways with no help from me. That would be cheating.

It looks nothing like the original of course, and I mostly improvised on the form I had by folding and refolding the back part of the head. The pointy bit on the top was actually flat when I tried flying the plane.

The second design I chose is called a "dragon paper airplane". This one looked a lot easier, and in profile looked enough like an elephant head to work for me. For this one, you will need these instructions.

This one was far more my speed. No strange little tabs to fold out and uncrease and refold again. Some people are just naturally gifted at folding paper. I am not one of them.

I still must have done something wrong, however because this one didn't really fly properly. This is what it looked like when I had finished following the instructions.

I decided to improvise with this one as well. This is what it looked like when I finished playing with the ear area.

This, of course, this didn't really fly, either. But it looked kind of like a floppy-eared elephant, at least.

Finally, I decided to make up a pattern myself, based on the airplane design I'm best at. Here are the folds in the order I did them.

I know that the upturned trunk looks weird and not the least bit aerodynamic, but it actually works. This plane flew the best of my three tries, and even did a sort of barrel roll before righting itself and continuing its flight. I think this one flew about 5.5 metres (18 feet) before diving to the ground. It's a fluke, I'm sure, that it flew at all.

It took me a little over an hour to make all three, and it was mostly a frustrating experience. There's something about my brain that just can't translate paper-folding instructions into an actual object. In fact, this ranks right up there with my origami elephant as something to never do again.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In 2007, it was decided to give Alaska's lone elephant, Maggie, a new home in California. The problem was how to get her there. Enter the United States Air Force.

While transporting an elephant is never easy, it can be particularly complicated on an airplane. Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, however, was keen to help. Codenamed Operation Maggie Migration, the task involved loading Maggie into a crate measuring 3 metres (10 feet) high, and weighing 4.5 tonnes (10,000 pounds), designed just for her.

The crate was rolled onto a C-17 cargo plane before the 4,990-kilometre (3,100-mile) trip to Travis Air Force Base in California. The flight took approximately five hours, followed by a two-hour trip to Maggie's new home at an elephant sanctuary.

Maggie's crate did not allow her to turn around—which could have had a significant effect on the plane's ability to manoeuvre properly—but it did give her enough room to sway comfortably. In addition to preventing an elephant from moving around too much, there are a few other important considerations when transporting an elephant by air.

For example, temperatures should be maintained between 13 and 21˚C (55 and 70˚F), with adequate ventilation. Food and water should be provided, depending on how long the elephant will be in transit. The elephant should also be acclimatized to its crate so that it remains calm during transport—a process that can take anywhere from one to six weeks.

Sometimes it may even be necessary to sedate the elephant, which requires the presence of a veterinarian. A veterinarian is usually a good idea anyway, as elephants can sometimes react poorly to the effects of altitude—particularly when combined with an anaesthetic or sedative. At the very least, knowledgeable keepers should be on hand to ensure the elephant's well-being and comfort during the flight.

All went well during Operation Maggie Migration. Following nearly 25 years of loneliness as Alaska's last remaining elephant, Maggie finally found a new home with a small herd at in San Andreas, California.

Elephant being loaded into a cargo plane bound for Sydney Australia, 2006.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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