Although they didn't break the world record, members of the Fox Valley Composite Squadron, the local unit of the Civil Air Patrol, said they don't consider Sunday's attempt to launch the highest paper airplane in history a failure.
The teen and professional members of the group -- an official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force -- split up on Sunday with mission control based at the DuPage Airport in West Chicago and the launch center for the helium balloon carrying the paper airplane in Kankakee.
"Three, two, one," counted off St. Charles High School senior Colin Sullivan from the mission control center. Takeoff was greeted with congratulations and applause while other teens checked the wind speeds and altitude of the quick-rising balloon that at times climbed more than 2,000 feet a minute.
A few minutes later, the aircraft was higher than most passenger planes fly. The balloon and plane reached a top altitude of about 51,000 feet before starting to descend -- about 30,000 feet short of the world record.
"Of course it's disappointing," said Arizonia Williams, mission control commander for the group. "It fell slowly, so there may have been a leak in the balloon or some other malfunction, but we won't know until we track it down."
The group will find the balloon, which landed somewhere east of Monticello, Ind., and watch footage from a video camera attached to the balloon to look for what caused the problem.
With the holiday season around the corner, another launch likely will be planned for early next year, he said.
The Civil Air Patrol conducts search and rescue missions within the continental U.S., but another mission is to provide 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.
The group has launched two previous balloons -- one that reached 60,000 feet and another that hit 80,000 feet above Earth, but this was the first time the group tried to attach a paper airplane in hopes of breaking the Guinness World record. The group's target altitude was 105,000 feet, more than double what was achieved on Sunday.
The current record, set in 2010 by a team in Spain, stands at 89,591 feet.
"This was a learning experience," Sullivan said. "If we break the record it would be awesome. I've been with the group since the beginning, so it's not something I could even have imagined back then, but we'll keep trying."