Take a piece of paper. Fold two corners in, fold the paper in half add some trimming and you have a very simple airplane. While you may only see airplanes flying around classrooms or sporting events, paper airplane pilots around the world take this hobby very seriously and compete at the international level, like senior linguistics major Ryan Naccarato.
“I know the way the paper folds and using it as a material it definitely presents its unique set of challenges,” Naccarato said. “The paper itself as a material has weaknesses but its greatest strength is its impermeability to air and that’s what allows it to fly. Paper is definitely a fun medium.”
With such a high interest, Naccarato discovered a competition in which he could put his talents to use and compete.
“I didn’t really realize that there was any sort of purpose for such a specific hobby until three years ago when I saw a flyer outside of my class that said paper airplane competition in Davis, in 2009,” Naccarato said.
He competed in Red Bull’s triennial paper airplane flying competition called Paper Wings, held in Salzburg, Austria, with over 200 pilots from 70 countries on May 4 and 5 ultimately tying with Poland for first place.
There are three categories in the Red Bull Paper Wings competition: flight time, distance and aerobatics. The latter, Naccarato’s discipline, is a competition in which the pilot controls exactly where the airplane goes. You are allowed to cut the paper, glue it, tape it or ballast it — meaning adding weight to change the characteristic of flight.
“In all of my designs, I like to keep it pure and just use a piece of paper. I don’t like to use tape if I don’t have to. In fact none of my designs need tape or anything,” Naccarato said. “They are just pure airplanes.”
However, Nacarrato said that only half of the skill is within the art of folding the paper.
“It has as much to do with being able to throw the airplane and as it does with folding it,” Naccarato said. “I could teach someone how to fold this airplane but they might not be able to get it to fly it as well as me. There’s nothing automatic about it.”
Naccarato’s father taught him how to make his first airplane when Naccarato was five years old. Since grade school he has been engrossed in the hobby, not realizing there was such a large following for paper airplanes.
“I have been a huge aviation enthusiast for my entire life. My father used to own a hobby store that sold model airplanes, helicopters, boats, so I was deeply involved in model aviation,” he said. “As a hobby of my own I enjoyed origami, folding paper. If you combine the two together, paper airplanes are literally right up my alley.”
After qualifying in Davis in 2009, Naccarato competed in Red Bull’s Paper Wings competition and placed, but did not win. This left him wanting more, so he sought out the qualifiers competition in 2012, which were located in Berkley.
“He actually drove all the way to Berkeley to compete again to compete in this event,” senior psychology major and UC Davis student manager for Red Bull, Henry Chatfield said. “Berkeley questioned whether he could compete there, but he was very persistent. I think the fact that he drove all the way to Berkeley to participate speaks to his drive.”
Naccaratto’s roommate, Anhad Singh, a graduate student in computer science, could see this drive in his everyday efforts.
“He took the competition very seriously,” Singh said. “It’s not like he came up with everything in one night, he gave it a lot of time, quite a few weeks of preparation. During the normal course of the day, he would try different designs and he read a couple of books.”
In the Red Bull Paper Wings competition, after qualifiers, the contestants go to Austria for the pre-eliminations and the top ten are sent on to the super finals. Naccarato placed fifth in the pre-eliminations because he said he was saving his performance for the super final round.
“I just wanted to get into the final, which is exactly what I did.” Nacarrato said. “My signature secret was elements of performance and creativity as well as design and flight performance. I had a bullwhip actually and unleashed a few cracks for dramatic effect. It was sort of my ace in the hole.”
Such an entertaining performance earned Naccarato 10 out of 10 points from all five judges, leaving him with a perfect score and a tie with Poland for first place. Along with his prize, Naccarato won a ride in an aerobatic helicopter — one of two in the world — both of which belonging to Red Bull.
“The helicopter may have been the unexpected outcome,” Naccarato. “Just the sheer rarity of an aerobatic helicopter cannot be understated, that doesn’t happen. It was ridiculously cool.”
After such a unique experience Naccarato said he couldn’t wait to go back to Salzburg. He was invited back to the competition in 2015 to defend his title.
Despite such a dedication to the competition, Naccarato said that paper airplanes are only his hobby.
“I considered aeronautical engineering but it’s not something I would want to do for work,” Naccarato said. “It’s a great thing to do if I’m bored, waiting for a bus or something. It’s immersive and very fun. I can just take a piece of paper and fold it into an airplane and enjoy myself. It’s a hobby.”
After this dedication and preparation, Naccarato said that after everything, his favorite part was the results of the competition.
“The best part was winning, actually going there with a purpose and intention to win,” Naccarato said. “I was the only American that placed and I took gold so that felt really good.”