Photos: Massive paper airplane soars over Ariz. desert and into history

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by Catherine Holland

Video and photos from Pima Air & Space Museum

Posted on March 23, 2012 at 11:26 AM

Updated Friday, Nov 1 at 5:38 PM

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ELOY, Ariz. -- We've all made paper airplanes, but you never seen anything like the massive 800-pound paper airplane that soared gracefully over the Southern Arizona desert earlier this week.

At 45 feet long, the unique creation had a wingspan of 24 feet. The plane, which just might be the biggest paper airplane ever made, was named Arturo's Desert Eagle and its flight was the culmination of the first Great Paper Airplane Project.

Arturo's Desert Eagle was inspired by Tucson resident Arturo Valdenegro. The 12-year-old took part in a regional paper airplane distance contest at the Pima Air & Space Museum in January. More than 100 kids took part, but it was Arturo's plane that flew the farthest.

As the winner of the contest, Arturo got to meet with the aerospace engineers who were overseeing the design and construction of humongous paper airplane.

"It's the biggest paper airplane I've ever seen and it's awesome," Arturo said on launch day, when Pima Air & Space Museum went from curating history to making. Nothing like Arturo's Desert Eagle has been made before, let alone flown.

Made of falconboard, a 100-percent paper-based graphic board that is recyclable, Arturo's Desert Eagle was hoisted nose first into the air, a Sikorsky helicopter acting as the arm that powers a regular size paper airplane. Up and up they went, Arturo's Desert Eagle trailing the Sikorsky. At 2,700 feet, the tow cable was cut and the biggest paper airplane ever built flew at a speed of 98 mph.

"[F]or several shining moments, our huge, beautiful, silly, hubristic 45-foot paper airplane soared," wrote lead engineer Art Thompson on The Great Paper Airplane Project blog. "[S]omehow, against all odds, a giant paper airplane flew across the Arizona sky tonight."

"She flew!" exclaimed Yvonne Morris, executive director of the Pima Air & Space Museum and Arizona Aerospace Foundation. "It was the coolest thing."

Arturo's Desert Eagle covered about six miles before crash-landing in the desert near Eloy.

"The museum is thrilled to conduct the first-ever Great Paper Airplane Launch, part of our larger effort to inspire America's youth and spark a passion for aviation and engineering in the next generation," Morris said.

As for Arturo, he had considered becoming an engineer before the paper airplane fly-off. Now he's sure that's what his future holds.

"I know for a fact that I really want to be an engineer," he said.

Arturo's Desert Eagle will go on display Pima Air & Space Museum later this month.

The Pima Air & Space Museum is one of the largest aviation museums in the world, and the largest non-government funded aviation museum in the United States. The Museum, which opened in 1976, maintains a collection of more than 300 aircraft and spacecraft from around the world, including many rare and one-of-a-kind, and more than 125,000 artifacts.

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