Fox Valley group goes for world-record paper airplane flight
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Come Sunday morning, Colin Sullivan and the rest of a collection of aerospace enthusiasts could set a Guinness World Record with help from a simple device people have toyed with for centuries.
A paper airplane.
Only this one will fly a little higher than most.
Sullivan and the Fox Valley Composite Squadron, the local unit of the Civil Air Patrol -- the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force -- will attempt to break the world record for the highest paper airplane flight when they launch their craft from a high-altitude balloon.
The group, which will attempt the feat at 10 a.m. from the Kankakee Airport, is targeting an altitude of 105,000 feet.
If all goes according to plan, the roughly 1-pound "aircraft" will touch down around two hours later somewhere in the heart of Indiana.
"I have to say, it's crazy to think about," Sullivan said. "We went from trying to first see if we could get this off the ground, to we know we could get it off the ground to here. It's still kind of hard to grasp."
The Civil Air Patrol conducts search and rescue missions within the continental U.S., but another mission is aerospace education and a cadet program to give youths like Sullivan hands-on experience in aerospace education, science, technology and math. The local squadron is made up of 44 adult members and 36 cadets from age 12 to 17.
Long familiar with high-altitude ballooning, project manager Gary Brown said in the past two years they've launched, tracked and recovered two balloons with video of the "darkness of space" from 80,000 feet above the Earth.
Kicking it up a notch, the group considered dropping a simple 8- by 11-inch airplane and attaching a note reading, "if found, contact us." In spring, members began tinkering with the idea of applying for the world record.
When contacting Guinness in early November, the group found it would need to track the paper aircraft all the way to the ground.
The current record, set in 2010 by a team in Spain, stands at 89,591 feet. The Fox Valley group set its sights on an altitude of 105,000 feet into "near space," about 99 percent of the Earth's atmosphere.
Every Friday and some weekends, the group met at its headquarters at the DuPage Airport in West Chicago for construction and planning.
With a budget of $700, the group constructed a durable aircraft with the frame made of cardboard and the skin of poster board.
It is a delicate process. Close attention to detail must be paid to the wings, making sure they have a little bit of a curve rather than the standard rectangular shape to make sure they are aerodynamic.
When completed, the airplane will have a 28-inch wingspan from tip to tip, a 26-inch length from nose to tail, and a total weight of just less than a pound.
The airplane will be launched dangling from a balloon holding 165 cubic feet of helium. Slightly toward the nose of the plane, a one-pound "payload" will contain two high-definition micro video cameras, a GPS tracking system and a flight computer to track altitude and pressure.
A ballpark figure for the ascent is 55 minutes, with the aircraft cutting away at 100,000 feet.
"Should it survive the cutaway, the descent should be 30 to 35 minutes depending on winds aloft," Brown said. "It will actually enter a very steep descent rate and slow as it gets into the denser atmosphere."
Mission control back in West Chicago will be able to track the ascent and flight, along with latitude and longitude, in real time down to the minute. Knowing from a predictive model that prevailing winds always drift the balloons to the northeast, chase vehicles will be ready to follow the airplane the minute it launches from Kankakee.
To qualify for the record, the group will need to document the process with video and pictures, submit the GPS log tracking ascent and descent, and include the video from on board with additional evidence.
Brown said all 36 cadets in the unit have been involved in the project at one point or another.
"We take all our cadets out for flights, but here's a chance to exceed that," Brown said. "The cadets through practice will learn a little more about meteorology, airframe design, learning the mechanics and physics of flying in near space with easy to use materials -- and having fun doing it. What a great life experience."
The squadron designed the project as an extreme Science, Technology, Engineering and Math learning experience for their cadets, most of them not older than 15.
Sullivan, the oldest cadet on the project, is off to college next year, and plans to pursue a private pilot's license with thoughts of being an Air Force pilot.
"It's been a great educational experience, a great opportunity," said Jodie Gawthrop, the youngest cadet on the team. "We're leading a small group of cadets and creating something that is significant with our aerospace education. It's amazing to think about the knowledge we've been able to gain."
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