Earlier this year, I had the incredible opportunity to compete in Red Bull Paper Wings — the largest paper airplane competition on the planet. This international competition is held every three years and brings paper airplane enthusiasts together to see who has what it takes to be crowned world champion. And, as you might expect, to reach such heights is no easy feat!
Red Bull Paper Wings is a massive competition. This year’s iteration featured over five hundred qualifying events in sixty two countries. Over sixty thousand people participated, with fewer than two hundred making it to the global finals in Salzburg, Austria. As you can tell by those numbers, qualifying for the global finals is quite the challenge in and of itself.
The competition is split into three categories: distance, airtime, and aerobatics. In the distance and airtime categories, participants must win the national qualifier for their country in order to advance to the global finals. This means, with a few exceptions, that only one participant from a given country can qualify in each category.
The qualification process for aerobatics is slightly different, but no easier. Contest hopefuls submit videos of their best paper airplane tricks for Red Bull to review. Based on these videos, a team at Red Bull then selects a single aerobatics representative for each country.
In early March, I submitted three aerobatics videos to Red Bull and waited to hear back. I waited, and waited, but heard nothing. By late April, I had given up on the idea that I was going to be selected as the USA representative. Competing in the global finals had long been a dream of mine, and I was extremely disappointed that I had failed to make it. I wouldn’t have another chance to qualify and compete for three whole years!
On Friday, April 22, I was helping my sister and brother-in-law move. I hadn’t seen them in a while, so I was catching up with them and telling them of my failed attempt at qualifying. I had just finished my story when a new email appeared in my inbox with the subject line, Red Bull Paper Wings — US Aerobatics Winner! I was genuinely shocked. I hadn’t heard a word from Red Bull before this! There had been no “Thanks for your submission” email. There had been no email about being a finalist. Nothing. But here it was — an email congratulating me, the US representative for the global finals and the winner of a free trip to Austria and a chance to compete with some of the best paper airplane experts in the world! All I could do was shout in excitement, scaring and confusing my family. You can see my winning entry below.
Less than three weeks later, my wife and I departed for Europe. I had never been out of the country, so I was full of anxious energy in addition to my elation. I couldn’t wait to see new places, meet new people, and compete.
Upon arriving in Austria, I was blown away by its natural beauty. Salzburg is a small city set against the towering Alps. The hundreds-year-old architecture of its “Old Town” is beautiful and ornate, while the site of the competition — Red Bull’s Hangar 7 — stands as a modern celebration of steel and glass.
Walking into the hangar was absolutely breathtaking. Real aircraft were scattered throughout the building, people of seemingly every nation rushed back and forth, countless paper airplanes soared through the air, and the glass walls allowed the backdrop of the Alps to remain always in sight. It was wonderful to meet the other paper airplane enthusiasts, and some of the other contestants even came up to me and told me that they qualified for the global finals using planes that I designed.
The competition itself was also wonderful, but I was extremely nervous leading up to it. The first half of the day was set aside to narrow around forty aerobatics participants down to the fifteen people who would compete in the super finals that afternoon. Though I brought an entire suitcase of paper airplanes with me to Austria, including Zoomerang, Helion, Aurora, and X-01 Missile, I felt unprepared and unpracticed. It was only three weeks prior that I had learned I was coming to this event! I felt confident in my planes, but didn’t really have my routine down.
The judges rated competitors on a ten-point scale, judging for creativity, showmanship, and audience engagement. Thankfully, I received two nines and a ten, taking me through to the next round of the contest. The first round of elimination allowed me to scope out the competition, and my goodness, was it stacked! Many of the aerobatics performances featured truly amazing feats including martial arts, tumbling routines, and even magic tricks to accompany their paper airplane performance. At that point I knew that I was unlikely to win the event, no matter how well my planes might fly. The best performances were far more exciting than my own.
Knowing this lifted some pressure off of my shoulders. In the final competition, I was much more relaxed, and was able to have more fun throwing my planes and watching the performances of the other competitors. I received two nines and two tens for my final performance, earning me 7th place overall for the competition. Not bad!
I also had a great time watching the air time and distance competitions, and was extremely impressed by the competitors. Once all of the events concluded I had the pleasure of meeting the winner of each category, and, since returning home, I’ve had the opportunity to interview each of them as well. In the coming weeks I’ll be posting those interviews on my website. In them you’ll learn their secrets to competing — and winning — at the highest levels of paper airplane competition! Already you can scroll down to find tutorials for the paper airplanes that they used to win each category of the Red Bull Paper Wings global finals! Enjoy!