AidSpace Blog

The Perils of Paper Airplanes

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Visitors to the Museum’s How Things Fly gallery can try out more than 50 hands-on activities and participate in science demonstrations.  The gallery has more than 35 part-time high school and college age Explainers who help visitors interpret the exhibits and the science of flight.  When I trained to be an Explainer, I learned the basics: daily activities, expectations, etc. What I didn’t learn, however, was all the job hazards. Interacting with visitors and doing demonstrations sound pretty safe, right?

Paper Airplane Contest

A boy participates in a paper airplane contest in the Museum’s “How Things Fly” gallery.

Not quite. Behind the multicolored propellers and paper airplane contests lurk hidden dangers.

A month after I started learning the Paper Airplane Contest, I presented the program for the first time. Visitors make their own airplanes and compete by flying their planes through a hoop from different distances. I thought I had contemplated everything that could go wrong. With hundreds of visitors participating in the contests each day, I assumed the odds of being hit by paper airplanes were high. I began the contest a little nervous, but everything went smoothly and that fateful impact never came. I congratulated the winner and packed up… relieved.  A couple of hours later as I headed to lunch, I squirted hand sanitizer into my palms and felt my hands stinging.  When I looked down there was an irritating paper cut. That was the beginning.

Over the next few weeks, I went home every day with my hands covered in paper cuts not realizing their source. Finally, it hit me. I was demonstrating how to make the folds of a paper airplane really crisp. With a flourish, I’d quickly run my nails along the line and would sometimes feel a sting on my wrist. Looking down, I would realize I was bleeding. Week after week, absorbed in excitement, I had slowly been covering my hands in paper cuts.

Paper Airplane Contest

Lauren Rice, an Explainer in the “How Things Fly” gallery, demonstrates how to make a paper airplane.

If you’ve never seen one of the demonstrations at the National Air and Space Museum you haven’t witnessed how easy it is to get caught up in the fun.  Even though we may do the same contest several times a day, each experience is different. I once had a family who attended every contest I held for three days in a row and by the end of the week, the son knew the program as well as I did. Another first-time paper airplane maker was so excited by his experience that his parents jokingly called me their son’s “First Flight Instructor.”

We want our visitors to have fun and enjoy their time at the Museum and hopefully learn a little science. Our ultimate goal is to encourage the learning experience beyond the visit.  Sometimes this goal can be difficult and full of hidden dangers, but I don’t mind.  I really enjoy my job!  I have, however, trained myself to hold the paper just a little farther from my wrists and pay closer attention when I fold my lines. I rarely get paper cuts anymore.  If only I had the same luck with the paper airplane collisions. Remember, aim for the hoop, not the Explainer!

Lauren Rice is an Explainer at the National Air and Space Museum and a student at American University.

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5 thoughts on “The Perils of Paper Airplanes

  1. I recall, it must be 45 years ago or so, taking a class like this from Paul Garber. It was in some auditorium in one of the other buildings and I remember my father (a big airplane fan) asked Paul if he could sit in on the class. It was with a wink Paul would say “if you are very quiet¸ sure, you can sit in the back”. And with that, a guy who was an early mail pilot & witnessed the Wright brothers demo flight at College Park would go on to show us how to fold paper air planes…..I’ll hope the kids today still get the same charge my dad & I got.

  2. Great post and the How Things Fly gallery looks like awesome fun! I write about paper airplanes because its one of my hobbies, and I wonder if there’s a link to any more information on the programs that the gallery uses? Specifically, I’d like to gather and post a large resource on creating and hosting paper airplane competitions. They seem to be gaining in popularity and I think it would help to have as much information out there as possible so schools and organizations have a good starting point for their communities.

    Thanks for any help you can provide. The “How Things Fly” link in your post doesn’t work.


  3. Thank you for your comment, Enzo. And thank you for pointing out the broken link. We have redone the How Things Fly website since this post was written. You can find it here:

  4. Great, thanks for the prompt reply. I’ve checked out the howthingsfly page and it’s loaded with info. You’re awesome!

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