HUNTINGTON BEACH — Jerry Peck calls his favorite paper airplane "Old Red," in part because the longtime McDonnell Douglas aerospace engineer used a red marker to decorate the tried-and-true plane.
But the design also has dominated McDonnell Douglas Corp.'s annual paper airplane flying contest for nearly a dozen years, leading the 60-year-old Irvine resident to compare Old Red to "a good red wine, because it just keeps on getting better and better, year after year."
Peck and Old Red are now gearing up to compete against paper planes crafted by aerospace engineers, pilots and flying aficionados from around the country in a brand-new competition that's being billed as the "World's Greatest Paper Airplane Contest."
The Sept. 9 fly-off in Long Beach will be recorded on videotape, and the best designs will be packaged on a CD-ROM that will be distributed to schools. "The whole idea is to get kids inspired about engineering," said Cary O'Neal, chairman of Malibu-based Electronic Malibu Productions, which is sponsoring the contest.
About 100 designers from around the nation are expected to compete, O'Neal said, including an engineer from Cessna Aircraft Co. in Wichita, Kan., and an experimental aircraft designer from Illinois. Organizers don't know if Boeing Co. will be represented; the employee who was spreading the word about the contest was recently laid off by the Seattle aircraft manufacturer.
The fly-off will take place at a huge McDonnell Douglas aircraft hangar in Long Beach, but O'Neal carefully noted that McDonnell Douglas and the other major aerospace companies are not official sponsors. Some participants believe that executives fear they would be criticized for letting employees take part in such a flighty event.
O'Neal said only that "there's a tremendous amount of politics involved . . . so the companies can't officially endorse it."
But that's fine with participants, who say their only interest is wringing a good design from a single sheet of photocopier paper. Winners will get something of immeasurable value: bragging rights for having beaten some of the world's best-designed paper airplanes.
Producing a flight-worthy paper plane "is an interesting challenge," said Barnaby Wainfan, an aeronautical engineer with Northrop Grumman Corp. in Pico Rivera. "Paper is inherently a poor design material, unlike balsa wood and some of the more sophisticated films that you'd use for a model airplane."
"The objective here is a long-duration flight," said Wainfan, who builds and flies model airplanes in his spare time. "So what you end up with is a slow, floating kind of behavior, which makes them fascinating things to watch. They fly very slowly, silently, for a long time."
The Sept. 9 contest will be run according to rules that McDonnell Douglas developed for its own fly-off. Planes must be crafted from a single 8 1/2-by-11-inch piece of photocopier paper. Designers can use glue to hold their crafts together and a dab of clay to provide balance. And they have to submit a schematic drawing.
Should any contestant need a helping hand, Peck has made copies of Old Red's design available. The plane, which boasts a 22-inch wingspan, was co-produced by Haig Parechanian, another McDonnell Douglas employee, who flies a sister craft in the annual company competitions.
"We keep bringing the same planes in, and either he or I wins first place every year," Peck said. "I figure if it works, why change it?"
After each competition, Peck returns Old Red to a storage cradle at his Irvine home. "The planes don't degrade, and they don't really get battered," Peck said. "So I just add a touch of glue when necessary."
Designers say they've progressed far beyond the rudimentary "dart" design perfected by generations of bored grade school students. Those planes typically fly for less than 10 seconds.
"I could probably get one that would stay in the air 15 or 20 seconds," said McDonnell Douglas engineer Ed Baxter, who has served as timer and rules interpreter for his company's internal competition. "But the true scientists/engineers are flying for about 30 or 35 seconds."
"The serious competitors use a regular [design], with wings, a rolled-tube fuselage and a conventional tail," Baxter said. "They end up with marvelous creations that float gracefully through the air."
Airplane designers seem to be as proud of their paper planes as they are of the real planes that they design and fly.
"I have to put a return address and a stamp on mine so someone can mail it back to me," boasted Bob Kerans, a retired American Airlines pilot who plans to travel to the competition from Kansas, Ill.
Kerans, 62, described his design as "so simple it's pathetic. . . . I can fold one up on the spot, and I get a certain satisfaction from beating people who have these labyrinthian designs."
When James Zongker, 34, isn't designing parts for Citation jets, chances are good that he'll be tinkering with paper airplane designs at his home in Wichita, Kan.