James May dreamt of being a fighter pilot as a child, his passion stoked by hours spent folding and refolding sheets of paper to produce the sleekest flying model. His love of model planes never faded in the Top Gun years. So May jumped at the chance when Radio Times invited him to show us how to make the paper plane of his youth.
“It’s something I learnt partly from my father and partly from a boy at school during hours of experimentation in the classroom and playground. It’s a sort of cross between a Vulcan bomber and a Fairey Delta, and if you do it properly, it’s a good flyer.”
These days May flies his own light aircraft, but as a boy he was always up to his elbows in balsa wood and glue.
“I spent hours making gliders with different wing shapes and that’s how I learnt the basics of aerodynamics. If you do things like that, it’s quite easy to grasp the fundamentals and you can easily start designing little aeroplanes of your own.”
That fascination with flight is wonderfully apparent as May supervises a project for his Christmas Toy Stories special – to build a model balsa-wood glider and fly it 22 miles over the English Channel to France.
Obviously not everything goes to plan, but the sight of the glider in flight has May whooping with joy.
“It’s something I’ve thought about since I was a kid. I thought it was tremendous to see that humble thing made out of wood achieve something so great. It looked so stoic and heroic as it flew in.”
But May insists that he isn’t nostalgic for the days of his youth. “If I was a kid now, I would be utterly obsessed with computer games, especially flight simulators and driving games.
“I’m pretty sure when I was a kid and I was making Airfix models, old men were saying, ‘When I was a lad, we had to carve it out of a piece of wood. It’s all instant gratification these days.’ ”
See James’s method for making the ultimate paper plane below, or you can download a full-size version here.
Watch an exclusive video of James May making his paper plane
James May’s Toy Stories: Flight Club is on BBC2 at 9:30pm on 29 December