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Paper Tiger

Ken Blackburn knows when to hold 'em, knows when to fold 'em


Attention, Joe Edwards: Research has yielded a clear and egregious omission from the University City Loop's St. Louis Walk of Fame, an O'Fallon, Mo., resident named Ken Blackburn.

Never heard of him? Blackburn is the world-record-holder in his special little niche: time aloft for a thrown paper airplane. In 1998, Blackburn whipped his paper glider with square wings high into the rafters of the Atlanta Falcons' home, the Georgia Dome. It skidded onto the turf 27.6 seconds later, the Guinness Book of World Records "scrutineer" observers gave the thumbs-up and Blackburn had officially set the record for the fourth time.

For Blackburn, paper airplanes are just another offshoot of his abiding interest in flying machines. The Boeing employee has also built his own single-seat "motor-glider" and enjoys hang-gliding and piloting ultralight aircraft. "The reason why I'm interested in paper airplanes," he says, "is because I love anything that flies."

While still a college student he became aware that the time-aloft record for paper airplanes was 15 seconds, and he promptly beat it with a 16.9-second throw. He later turned in flights of 17.2 and 18.8 seconds, and when a pair of Brits upped the ante to 20.9 seconds in 1997, Blackburn went on a mission.

He honed his plane's design and practiced throwing planes every day for at least an hour for nine months, he says. He also lifted weights to strengthen his throwing arm and toughen up his rotator cuff. He somehow wangled a free rental of the Georgia Dome in October 1998 and summoned the anal-retentive Guinness Book judges to make the attempt completely kosher.

On his 10th and final throw of the day, he accomplished what he had set out to do: bust the world record by more than a few seconds to give the next round of record-attempters a serious challenge. "When they called out the time, I really thought they had made a mistake," he recalls. "I didn't think it could be that long." But it was long -- really long -- 27.6 seconds of hang time. Try counting off 27 seconds and imagine a paper airplane launched from the ground taking that long to return to earth.

Blackburn has turned his hobby into a cottage industry. He's authored four how-to books on paper airplanes, including the Aviation Legends Paper Airplane Book, published in November. He crosses the country to give motivational speeches and host paper-airplane contests. His Web site,, offers photos of his record-breaking flights and instructions for folding champion flyers.

The record-holder has received attention for one illicit adventure, too: "I think a lot of people have seen that airplane that floats out from the upper deck of a sports stadium and makes it out onto the field. I once was able to do that," reports Blackburn. "I got a little cheer out of the audience, and that was really cool."

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