Launch Party

By now we have amply discussed the football game and disappointment from last Saturday between the sidelines. But a different surprise at the opening of the new Stanford Stadium was the pervasiveness of aerodynamics exploration by fans in the stands. Those "card stunt" cardboard sheets at every seat were too tempting for many.

A stubborn breeze blew on the afternoon of the grand unveiling of the new Stanford Aerodrome.  It tugged at checkered tablecloths and sent Nerf footballs spiraling off on wayward vectors.  Though there was a time - just the previous November actually - when the breeze might have ruined things, the mood was buoyant on campus.  A new era had arrived and the proof was gleaming in its perch atop the "Berm that Pop Built."  Still, as the shadows lengthened one nagging doubt remained: were the locals really up to the task?

In the glory years of the old aerodrome, the air had fairly hummed with missiles.  Malt tops had traced elegant parabolas in the sky, and bottle caps had whirred towards the bottom of the bowl.  Debris was everywhere and so too was the spirit of innovation.  Four malt spoons equaled one boomerang.  Dismembered, the right kind of pull tab - the type with two slots in the ring - became both rocket and launcher.  The Cardinal Today, stacked up inside every gate and free for the taking, offered limitless possibilities.

But times had changed, the social historians told us.  Since the alcohol ban, the supply of bottle caps and pull tabs had dwindled to almost nothing.  Local palates were too discriminating for ice milk.  Hantavirus was a growing concern.  The landing area was impossibly far and the winds that blew through the open end were unforgiving; kids left the aerodrome feeling like failures.  And, of course, there was the soccer thing.

By seven o'clock on opening night last weekend, a reported 44,000-plus aficionados were wrapped in the Aluminum Lady's downsized embrace.  Below them, seemingly close enough to touch, a grass rectangle beckoned.  It was smooth and green like one of those RAF airfields in a PBS drama.  The air, excepting certain unexplained perturbations originating from the south west quadrant of the aerodrome, was preternaturally still.  And as the sun set over Skyline, an awesome thought crystallized.  It was a perfect night for flying.

For the first 90 minutes or so, the skies were quiet and the doubts surfaced.  But there were hints that the locals were simply in stealth mode, suggestions that maybe they were ramping up for something huge.  Parents were observed mulling questions of lift and drag; young children flexed 99th percentile preschool educations, folding brightly colored sheets of cardboard into shapes that would have confounded Pythagoras.  And when a man dressed in red ran to the midway point of the green rectangle and kneeled, it became a question of when rather than if.

The first cellulose bird rose from the upper tier and arced into the night.  It was delta winged and cardinal colored, and even though it death spiraled into the lower tier, it was a beginning.  Another plane, this one a white drone, went sailing.  And then another.  And as the night sky filled with paper craft, the return to glory was almost tangible.

There were hiccups, of course.  The typical infrastructural and operational glitches associated with building a state-of-the-art facility in a mere nine months.  The cotton candy was too sticky, altering release points enough to send mechanically sound craft nosediving like aging Tupolevs.  The steam from barely-eaten orders of garlic fries rose from the lower tier, creating unpredictable thermals that frustrated even the best-conceived flight plans.  Down below, the men in white were running circles around the men in red, pocking the once-pristine landing area with divots.  And that mystifying turbulence emanating from the south west quadrant kept growing and growing until it sounded almost like noise.  But thinking back to November, who could complain really?

And then the Chuck Yeager moment happened.  A plane took off, fought through the thermals and soared for an unimaginable distance.  The crowd held its collective breath as it veered left and then right, and finally straightened out for the final approach.  The touchdown was perfect; the contraption glided nose-barely-up onto the grass and taxied, as Murph himself might have put it, right between the "S" and the "T," just absolutely pin high folks!  The crowd went bonkers and a man with a walkie-talkie rushed out to retrieve the prototype for immortalization in the Arrillaga Center, or perhaps on the side of a Caltrain car.  And as post-consumer recycled cardboard rained down on the green rectangle, the dark ages began to recede until all that mattered was the present.  Big time aeronautics was back at Stanford.

Top Five Planes

#1 "Cor-divot," Section 236.

Materials: 2006 Cardinal Fan Playbook containing season tickets
Design: wadded
Black Box Recording: augered-in 0.8 seconds after release

#2 "Sopped With Camel"; section 240

Materials: mustard-saturated Farm Dog wrapper
Design: V-shaped fuselage
Black Box Recording: leveled off at 60 feet and headed towards Navy section before being brought down by clear air turbulence.

#3 "Spruce Goose"; section 233

Materials: Card stunt card with a payload of wasabe in nose
Design: fusiform with Concorde-like "beak"
Black Box Recording: strayed into no-fly zone above Walt's headset and veered off course.

#4 "Spirit of St. Geme"; section 202

Materials: dog-eared Stickney's lunch ticket with Bob Murphy's autograph
Design: delta-winged
Black Box Recording: circumnavigated the field and landed in the end zone

#5 "Amelia Earhart"; section 237

Materials: unknown
Design: squarish wings
Black Box Recording: unrecovered (plane did a 180 and headed through the exit and into the night)

John Jasberg was a founding member of the influential "Zero-Yard Line Club."  He can be emailed at

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