It was good to see flights take-off once again at the old HAL airport last Sunday. Only, the planes that had a smooth takeoff and landing were made of paper. And the pilots were college students dressed casually in jeans and T-shirts.
Red Bull, the energy drink maker, had organized a paper plane flying contest for college students in India for the first time, as part of a worldwide contest, held first in 2006. The qualifying rounds that were conducted in five major cities – New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Chennai, over January-February, attracted around 150 participants.
Forty-five participants who had qualified from the city level rounds in three categories, ‘Longest Distance’, ‘Longest Airtime’ and ‘Aerobatics’ had made it to the national finals on 1st March. The grand attraction – winners in each category would get a free ride on a real plane to participate in the Red Bull Paper Wings World Championships to be held at Hangar 7, Salzburg Airport, Austria.
The area in front of the erstwhile Kaveri Crafts shop inside the HAL airport was the practice arena for the contestants. The place was littered with paper planes of all shapes and sizes. Though it looked like the boys were having fun, the underlying pressure of winning the event could be seen on their faces.
Abhi, a young IITian from Chennai gave a broad smile and showed me how to make a paper plane. Clean shaven and dressed in a dark striped shirt and light coloured trousers, he looked just like a techie. He had entered the qualifying rounds when he got to know of this contest ‘by chance’ through his friend. Now, here he was in the finals, practising for the longest distance category.
The long hall, previously the over-crowded check-in area for domestic flights at HAL airport, was used as the venue for the finals. Each participant was cheered and the Bangalore-based participants naturally had the highest support. The event had its share of glamour as young women from the local colleges cheered for their ‘guy’ to win.
Have you ever tried throwing a paper plane at home? Chances are it wouldn’t have gone too far. That’s probably because you are not Karan Shah, a bespectacled, studious looking Poddar College student from Mumbai. His plane flew an amazing 29.25 meters, winning the ‘Longest Distance’ prize comfortably.
There were paper gliders on show, too. With wide wings and blunted edges, these gliders could stay airborne for longer. Ryan Gibbs from St. Joseph’s, Bangalore, who won the ‘Longest Airtime’ prize – his plane spent 7.16 seconds before landing – explained that this design was used by other participants worldwide. The world record in this category is 27.6 seconds. Gibbs has a long way to go if he has to win the World Championship in Austria.
The third category, aerobatics, provided the best entertainment. Not only were the planes very creative, the participants put up a colourful show. While one participant came in a multi-colour costume and a bushy wig, another came in a Formula One racing suit complete with a helmet. Creativity in outfit and plane design were important criteria to win this category. This category also attracted the sole girl participant in the entire event.
Bipin Chinappa, a student from of CMR Institute of Management Studies, Bangalore was the most creative. Wearing a cardboard prop shaped like a plane, he strode in and flew his planes. He justified his costume with irrefutable logic – “I believe any pilot should be in a plane to fly a plane”.
As the judges announced the scores, Chinappa’s face broke into a huge grin. He was the crowd’s favourite and everybody was sure he would win; until Shailesh from VSM Aerospace stepped in and equalled his score taking the contest to a tie-breaker.
Unfortunately for Chinappa, his cardboard plane prop gave way. However, his paper planes put up a much better performance, and in the end it was his planes’ better flying power that won him the ticket to Austria. Chinappa’s relieved smile said it all.
There was a sizeable crowd, comprising mostly of college students. There were a few Red Bull representatives who stood at the entrance and distributed much-needed energy drinks to all. There was also some fantastic acrobatics by Pranjal and group, an amateur college dance troupe that entertained the spectators during the breaks.
The three finalists who won the Austria trip were cheered and envied by others. “The feeling has not yet sunk in” said a tired Gibbs after the photo shoots, “and obviously I’ll have to practice harder for the next event”. But for the day he was the hero as his friends planned to celebrate his win in style.