Inside Purdue Engineering: Paper airplanes at commencement

Since at least 1966, graduating seniors in aeronautical and astronautical engineering have been designing, constructing and flying paper airplanes toward the stage at commencement.

Some soar, beautifully arching over rows and rows of seats inside Elliott Hall of Music.

Some are less graceful, their trajectory a strict up and crashing down.

Some are brightly colored, pops of orange to distract from the largely heavy gold-and-black scheme.

Some are mostly white but littered with words, a product of the material used, taking advantage of the commencement program on hand.

Some are thoughtfully planned and constructed, years of coursework considered and executed.

Ultimately, all blend in during the barrage.

A salvo of paper airplanes at 2012 Commencement
A salvo of paper airplanes at 2012 Commencement. (Photo: Purdue University)

When graduates from the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics are announced at Purdue University commencement, a flurry of paper airplanes is dispatched, some haphazardly launched with no destination in mind, others intentionally aimed toward the stage, despite University administration occupying the space.

The tradition has become a rite of passage for aeronautical and astronautical engineering students who are receiving their bachelor’s degrees. The longest-tenured faculty in the School can recount stories of seeing the phenomenon, but none are quite sure when and why it started.

Even two people who literally helped write the history book on the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics aren’t sure. W.A. “Gus” Gustafson and A.F. “Skip” Grandt Jr. published “One Small Step: The History of Aerospace Engineering at Purdue University” in 1995, along with L.T. Cargnino. The 476-page book is a deep dive into the courses offered over the years, changes within the department that included a turbulent merger with another program, a comprehensive list of faculty and much more. But no mention of one of the longest-standing traditions in its history.

All Gustafson and Grandt know is students have been flying paper airplanes at commencement since at least the 1980s, when they each respectively started attending as the School’s representatives.

Grandt even recalls being teased several times during his headship (1985-93) by other department heads when poorly constructed airplanes failed to reach the stage. Or when, during the first commencement he attended in the early 1980s, the Dean introduced the next group of graduating students — agricultural engineering, which followed AAE alphabetically — with “I’m afraid of what they might throw on the stage next.”

Alumnus Bob Strickler didn’t recall anyone throwing paper airplanes when he graduated in 1960, back when the school was named the School of Aeronautical Engineering.

Neither did alumna Lolitia Bache when she earned her BS in 1964, when it was the School of Aeronautical Engineering and Engineering Sciences.

But by the time Linda Flack started as staff in the school in 1966, she said the tradition was in place.

“I think one of the things about the paper airplane tradition that’s interesting is that nobody knows how it started, so it probably means the students started it,” said William Crossley, J. William Uhrig and Anastasia Vournas Head of Aeronautics and Astronautics who joined the AAE faculty in 1995. “A lot of the great traditions at Purdue, really, the students started, and it snowballed from there. I’m assuming some students decided this would be a cool thing to do, and it’s been carried on almost every year since then.”

Though few may know the history of the tradition, few doubt the uniqueness and the relevance for this particular group of graduates.

Aerospace engineering students designing, building and flying (paper) airplanes? Of course.

“Near as I know, none of the other engineering schools have any sort of cool traditions like that that they can show off very publicly at commencement,” said Phil Baldwin, a staff engineer in AAE and an alumnus who participated in the tradition when he received his BS in May 2013. “It’s very uniquely aeronautics and astronautics. Seeing a salvo of paper airplanes fly toward the stage is very much us.”

To plan or not to plan?

Baldwin initially learned about the tradition when he heard upperclassmen discussing it. When his own commencement was closing in, he and his senior classmates received an email with information from Lisa Crain, the undergraduate program coordinator.

Before Crain started sending email in 2012, she’d let one graduating senior know about the tradition, and that student shared it with the rest of the class.

A student shows off his paper airplane
A soon-to-be graduate shows off a paper airplane inside the Armory, where students gather before commencement. (Photo: Vincent Walter)

The advance notice allows students an ability to plan, if so desired. They could have a week, maybe more, to pore over design options (the classic delta design always is a good choice), thoroughly consider materials (maybe a heavier cardstock, using paper clips or a coin to add weight in the right place), utilize all the aeronautical engineering knowledge they gained over their undergraduate careers and get in a few test flights.

In theory, the best plane would balance the center of gravity and the center of lift, to allow it to fly straighter and farther. For that delta design, that’d mean a bit more weight forward, most commonly achieved by adding paper clips.

“There are plenty of aeronautical engineering principles for anything that flies, so even in a paper airplane you can do lift and drag calculations and stability calculations,” Baldwin said. “Some people really put some homework time into those paper airplanes. I know some people took hours and did calculations and everything.”

Many do not.

It’s not uncommon to see students tearing up the graduation program and doing some quick folding on actual commencement day because they didn’t prep — but still wanted to participate in the tradition.  

“Taking part of something that has gone back decades, even if it’s a mostly inconsequential sort of tradition, it’s still really neat,” Baldwin said. “You could build a paper airplane just the same 50 years ago as you could today. The fact that it’s been ongoing, everything changes but everything stays the same. We’re obviously graduating with way different skills than somebody in the mid-20th Century would, but we can still throw a paper airplane with the best of them.”

And someone just may be judging those flights.

Embracing the tradition

The trajectory was perfect.

Photo of Mitch Daniels with collection of paper airplanes
Purdue University President Mitch Daniels collects the airplane that lands closest to him each year -- and keeps them in his office on campus.

Sitting about 20 rows deep in the far left of one of the middle sections of Elliott Hall of Music in 2019, Mark Bufanio let his paper airplane fly toward the stage.

The flight was pure. Even beautiful.

Less than 10 seconds later, it softly landed on the stage, next to Purdue University President Mitch Daniels. Bufanio raised his right fist in triumph of the feat — one that had Daniels reaching out to connect with Bufanio after the fact.

Since he became president in 2013, Daniels has embraced the unique tradition. Not all University presidents have over the years. But Daniels more than encourages the flurry — he has asked students to write their names on the paper airplanes because he collects the one that lands closest to him and keeps them in his office on campus. 

“The tradition is a highlight of every Commencement season for me,” Daniels said. “My collection of annual long-flight winners is something I have a lot of fun with.”

Catch up on all the installments in our "Inside Purdue Engineering" series