Representatives from over 60 countries around the world gathered together in the iconic venue of Hangar-7 in Salzburg, Austria, to compete in a global paper plane throwing championship. Sínann Fetherston brings us on the journey.
On the invitation of Red Bull, I flew to Austria to attend the Paper Wings World Finals along with two other Irish media representatives: social media influencer Ged, a 24-year-old video content professional from Belfast, and rising star Emer Kelly, a 23-year-old TikTok and Instagram content creator from Wicklow.
From beginning (a party bus journey to the opening ceremony at Stadion Salzburg) to end (a dance-filled celebration at Salzburg airport), our time in Austria was something to behold.
What first sounded like a school yard game quickly turned into a mind-boggling display of bizarre and creative talents, brought to new heights (there will be many puns, buckle in) by a group of people flown in from around the globe.
As it turns out, an A4 piece of paper can have audiences cheering, shouting, gasping, laughing and, at times, diving for cover.
The national finalists participating at the sixth-ever World Final were the best of their country, with more than 61,000 hopefuls coming through over 500 Qualiflyer events in Distance and Airtime and, in the case of Aerobatics, viral-worthy videos.
The World Final itself spanned two days within the stunning glass walls and sky-scraping ceiling of Hangar-7 – a jaw-dropping venue that is home to Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz's collection of historic aircrafts and formula one racing cars.
Waving the Irish flag were three students: American-born CIT student Brian Grant who competed in Distance; Wexford native Jamie Kinsella from CIT who took on Airtime; and Dubliner Bill Oshafi from DCU who cartwheeled his way through Aerobatics.
As the competition heated up, so too did our surroundings (air conditioning is a big no-no when it comes to a paper-based event), and while some pilots stuck their landings, others crashed and burned.
Unfortunately, Friday the 13th proved to be an unlucky day for the Irish team as both Grant and Kinsella were knocked out from the competition in the early stages.
Despite the loss, 20-year-old Kinsella insisted that the event was a great way to meet people from around the world:
"It's been absolutely amazing, so exciting to meet all these new people and make new friends. I'll definitely be in contact with them in the future."
Similarly, 21-year-old Grant said that the social aspect of the competition was as exciting as the event itself:
"One of the things I would like to do with my life is travel the world and try food everywhere so it was cool to meet new people here and experience new cultures."
On Saturday morning, Dublin man Bill Oshafi did the country proud by getting through to the Aerobatics finals. He did so with an energetic performance of cartwheels, press-ups, bat gliders and a balloon-popping dart plane.
"My nerves were pretty high a few days before we were supposed to leave because I was like 'what if I'm not good enough'. I'm competing against proper professionals here, there's a guy with like 300k subscribers on YouTube who only does paper airplanes," he explained.
On the day, Oshafi says he felt like he had blinders on and thoroughly enjoyed his time on stage as the nerves melted away.
Speaking on making it to the finals, the DCU student said that he was delighted to represent Ireland on the world stage.
"It's really cool, I've honestly been milking it a lot," he laughed. "I'm a professional at paper airplanes, and the best in Ireland at that."
The 2022 World Finals
According to the rules, all Distance and Airtime pilots were required to make their plane from identical materials: namely a single, standardised sheet of A4 paper provided by the organisers.
Their task was to create the most aerodynamic shape possible by folding only – no cutting, tearing, gluing, stapling or other such modifications allowed.
In the end, it was a worthy winner who came forward. Serbian man Lazar Krstić achieved 61.11m with his paper plane thanks to six months of intensive training, whereby he gained 10kg and studied the intricacies of javelin throwing.
Krstić previously took part in the 2019 competition with a second place result of 52.28m. Clearly, coming so close became a driving motivator because he blew every other competitor out of the sky, launching a first throw of 57.13m that no one could top, and then – even though he’d already won – a second throw even farther at 61.11m.
"My strategy for winning was folding, if possible, the perfect paper plane, but I somehow think that's impossible," Krstić explained. "You need to be very precise with each fold. Besides that, I knew that in Salzburg the height [of the venue] was not that good, so I designed my model so that it's a lower height model so I can throw even further."
"I really wanted this win," he said in his statement. "I was working hard for it and in the end it paid off. It's a great experience, I really like it. I’m competitive, but I really like to be around other people as well, and I got to meet even more people this time. I’m so happy. You’ll see me again!"
In the Airtime category, pilots launched their planes into the hangar's arched glass ceiling, aiming for the longest time between takeoff and landing.
Competing in the Super Final, Rana Muhammad Usman Saeed of Pakistan ended a 10-year-wait for redemption by winning with a time of 14.86 seconds. What's more, in pre-elimination he achieved 16.39 seconds – a new Paper Wings record.
"I was here back in 2012 but I couldn't achieve good results that year," Saeed explained. "10 years on, I'm back again and I'm the world champion."
"You have to learn the aerodynamics of the plane," he added. "If you learn that, you need to go to the place and see what kind of conditions you have there. You will adjust your plane according to those conditions."
With just a few seconds to set up their often elaborate performances, aerobatic pilots had 60 seconds to dazzle an impressive judging panel comprised of record-setting pilot Dario Costa, two-time Olympic gold medallist in Snowboard Big Air, Anna Gasser, and BMX legend Senad Grosic.
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Basing a score on creativity, overall flight performance and technical proficiency may sound simple, but these aerobatic performances were incredibly unique.
While some displayed feats of aerobatic engineering and athleticism, others relied on comedy and confetti.
Following the pre-elimination, Grosic explained that the judges agreed to be a little kinder to the contestants given how diverse the performances would be, agreeing not to go below five on their score cards for anyone taking part.
"The judging criteria is really hard, you have from one to 10 but let's say it's five to 10. It's crazy, I'm more for the show, and the overall expression, and the social impact - that's the criteria I'm looking for - but it's so hard, all of them are amazing people."
Luckily for the judges, a clear winner came through in the unusual event in the form of Seunghoon Lee of South Korea.
The Science teacher flew through a Squid Games inspired performance that landed him 46 points.
Wearing a formal black tuxedo, he presented himself as a magician, launching a fleet of planes into mind-bending performances - twirling, boomeranging and even flapped their wings.
His pre-elimination performance was exceptional, but it was his final performance that had audiences cheering the loudest.
Following his win, he dropped down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend with a yellow plane, which she happily accepted.
"I teach children science and paper planes and aerodynamics," Lee explained. "I really love paper airplanes, I've been studying for like seven years, so this was my dream come true."
"I brought my girlfriend, without telling her that I would be doing the proposal at the event. I didn't know if I had gotten into the Super Finals, so after I passed the Super Finals with 30 points I was confident that I could get one of those three trophies, so this morning I told her that if I got a trophy I would propose. And it really happened. I did it in front of the whole world and it was really amazing."
The winners of each category were taken on a once in a lifetime trip to the skies in a variety of aircrafts, including a seaplane which touched down on a lake in Austria - something that is supposedly only signed off to happen 15 times per year, and only by Red Bull.