At a length of 45 feet (13.7 meters), a wingspan of 24 feet (7.3 m), and a weight of 800 pounds (363 kg), Arturo’s Desert Eagle is claimed to be the largest paper airplane ever made. Its design was based on that of a much smaller paper airplane, created by 12 year-old Arturo Valdenegro of Tucson, Arizona. Valdenegro was the winner of a contest held by the Pima Air & Space Museum, in which children competed to see whose airplane could fly the farthest. A team of engineers proceeded to recreate his winning plane on a grand scale, and last week managed to fly it after releasing it from a helicopter over the Arizona desert.
The museum’s Great Paper Airplane Project build team was led by aerospace engineer Art Thompson, who also had a hand in designing the B-2 stealth bomber.
They started by building a 5-foot (1.5-m) trial model, which was simply thrown by hand to test the design’s airworthiness on a slightly larger scale. Next they moved up to a 15-foot (4.6-m) model, which was tested on the back of a fast-moving pickup truck, and released from a helicopter. Finally, using a type of corrugated cardboard known as falcon board, they built the full 45-foot Desert Eagle.
Last Wednesday, the aircraft was taken out into the desert for its big flight. While still on the ground, it actually buckled under its own weight. This required some on-site reconstruction, but eventually it was tethered to a cable attached to the underside of a vintage Sikorsky S-58T military helicopter – the very helicopter, incidentally, that was featured in the 80s TV series Riptide – and lifted into the sky.
Plans initially called for Arturo’s Desert Eagle to be released from its cable at an altitude of about 5,000 feet (1,524 m). Because it was swaying so heavily in the wind, however, it posed a potential danger to the helicopter, so was let loose at approximately 2,700 feet (823 m). This still allowed it to glide for about ten seconds, reaching speeds of at least 100 mph (161 km/h), before finally crashing unceremoniously into the ground.
The Great Paper Airplane Project was intended to get young people interested in careers in the aerospace industry, and it seems to have worked with Valdenegro – he reportedly now plans on pursuing a career in engineering. Some of Wednesday’s activities can be seen in the video below, although (rather frustratingly) we don’t get to see much of the actual solo glide itself.