UTSA Freshman Landen Taylor holds up the paper airplane that won him a trip to Austria.
UTSA freshman Landen Taylor holds the paper airplane that won him a trip to Austria. Credit: Courtesy / Travis Britz

It is easy to assume that, for a college student, making a paper airplane and posting a video of its flight to Instagram is no more than a silly distraction from the academic grind.

For 19-year-old University of Texas at San Antonio freshman Landen Taylor, however, that silly distraction had a purpose – and a payoff.

Taylor, much to his surprise, qualified for a trip to Austria and a spot in the international finals of the Red Bull Paper Wings competition. Paper Wings, just one of the energy drink company’s marketing ventures, is the world’s largest paper airplane competition, with people competing in three categories: aerobatics, airtime and distance. The international finals of the competition, which began in 2006 and takes place every few years. will be in Salzburg, Austria, at the famed Hangar-7.

Taylor said the whole experience has been wild and unexpected and that he’s “looking forward to experiencing the art and architecture and culture in Austria.”

“I’ve never been there, and I don’t know anything about it.”

The rules in Taylor’s category, aerobatics, are simple. Contestants entered, between Jan. 7 and April 6, by posting a video to Instagram (up to 60 seconds) of their paper plane in action, with the required social media tags.

Contestants were required to use only one sheet of paper in the construction of their plane. No glue, no rubber bands, no propellers, no frills: basically just a piece of paper folded with some ingenuity and inspiration.

Once submitted, aerobatics video entries receiving enough fan votes online were judged on construction, performance and creativity. Taylor’s submission made it through the fan voting stage and was selected as a World Finals qualifier by Paper Wings jury members (and accomplished actual pilots) Aaron Fitzgerald and Kirby Chambliss, making him one of only five aerobatics qualifiers in the United States (out of 168 submissions).

Now Taylor, who confessed that he submitted the video in early April on a lark and is no paper airplane prodigy, is headed, on Red Bull’s dime, to Salzburg May 16-19 to compete for the Paper Wings world championship in aerobatics.

A friend who happens to be a campus representative for Red Bull notified Taylor, a chemical engineering major and an active part of the UTSA paintball squad, of the open competition. It was apparently an easy sell.

“You could win a trip to Austria for nothing,” Taylor recalled his friend saying.

“I said, ‘You know what? I have nothing better to do.’”

So Taylor did what any self-respecting engineering major would do: He turned to Google in search of simple paper airplane models that could do tricks.

Then, using “some old chemistry handouts I had laying around,” he got to work. Once he had a paper airplane he had some confidence in, Taylor recruited a friend to shoot the video and they headed to one of UTSA’s gyms.

After no more than five takes, and a few folding tweaks in between, Taylor had what would become a winning video.

His location and the video itself, and not necessarily the paper airplane, which did a marginally impressive flip and swirl in the video, had a lot to do with Taylor’s plan and eventual selection.

“I wanted to incorporate UTSA as much as possible, because I did my research and I knew they were looking for college students especially,” Taylor said. His video prominently features the gym’s huge UTSA logos and even a basketball player getting in some reps before team practice.

Taylor said the judges were keen, as he had hoped, on his school spirit and the overall presentation in the video.

Now, this would-be paper airplane expert is off to Austria to compete against other student qualifiers from more than 55 countries.

As one might expect, he’s taking it in stride – and he’s back to his Google research.

“As important as the planes are, my appearance and overall performance is going to help a lot, too,” he said.

As the Lone Star State’s only representative in aerobatics, and as part of a presentation strategy that has already worked for him, Taylor said “it’s important to me to put some school pride and even some Texas themes in whatever I come up with.”

For those considering taking a stab at future Paper Wings competitions, Taylor offered some widely applicable advice.

“First of all, don’t be afraid to try,” he said. After all, look where it got him.

“Also, do your research – don’t just fold a paper airplane like you did when you were 3 years old.”

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.