Issue 6.3: June/July 2003

Model Citizen

story by Julia Steele
photos by Dana Edmunds

The Concorde was a marvel of modern engineering—all streamlined metal, sleek lines and ahead-of-its-time design. And, come to think if it, so was the aluminum can. But I’d never seen the two put together until I found myself on Maui recently, staring at a pink-and-yellow replica of the Concorde, expertly fashioned from ninety-five Hawaiian Sun Pass-O-Guava cans. The architect of this mini masterpiece is the colorful "Tin Can Man of Maui," Ray Roberts, and the place to find him (and the Pass-O-Guava Concorde) is at his Paper Airplane Museum, somewhat incongruously located in the middle of a shopping mall in Kahului.

When you meet Ray, chances are he’ll have a welcoming smile on his face and a lei of pop tops around his neck. "Well, hello there," he’ll boom (though not quite a sonic boom) in a voice straight out of 1940s radio—authoritative, smooth and gentle, all rolled up into one inflection. Before moving to Maui, Ray taught drafting in California high schools for decades, a career that left him with the ability to fashion pretty much anything he pleases. He began crafting with aluminum cans twelve years ago when he manned a county fair recycling table, and today the museum is a testament to his talent: On a shelf near the Concorde, there’s a 1916 SPAD World War I airplane made from Diet Coke cans; on another, a Cessna crafted from Pepsi cans. Other creations include a Dr. Pepper turkey and an Arizona Ice Tea whale.

But, as its name suggests, the Paper Airplane Museum is home to more than just tin can contraptions. It also houses the world’s largest known collection of paper airplanes—over 2,000 of them. Ray started acquiring them years ago with students in his model aeronautics class, and he now has planes from all over the world: England, Czechoslovakia, Cambodia, the Philippines, Peru ... you name it. The hundreds of makes and models of flying machines on display range from a 1909 Dove monoplane to the Mars Polar Lander—a dizzying advance in less than a century.

Ray’s charming wife Edy helps him run the museum. "He has a lot of fun and a lot of patience," she says. And a lot of energy. Not content to rest with his aluminum and paper models, Ray has covered the museum’s walls with clippings and photos from Hawaii’s aviation history. There’s a picture of Charles Lindbergh boarding a Pan Am 747, a photo of a Sikorsky S-43 amphibian flying past Molokai, an article on building airstrips in the North Pacific—everywhere you look, there are stories of people who dreamt of flying the Islands’ skies.

Ray hosts field trips for Maui schoolchildren (or "the dear ones," as he calls them), his stories of those daring young men and their audacious airplanes inspiring a new generation of frequent fliers. For this is a museum not just of flying machines, but of the people who love them. Interspersed among the "official" stories of Hawaii’s high-altitude past are Polaroid snapshots of visitors to the museum who’ve found a familiar history on the wall. Next to the story of Lindbergh’s death, there’s a Polaroid of two men who mentioned to Ray that they’d built the famed aviator’s coffin. Next to a story on Wake Island, there’s a shot of a Vietnam veteran who told Ray about landing at Wake on his way home from the war. Next to a model of a PBY-5 Catalina flying boat (built from a very rare kit from Poland, Ray says), there’s a picture of a museum visitor who piloted the plane during World War II. Dozens of other snapshots line the walls—Ray takes the pictures himself and posts them, constantly adding new layers of history to the place that, with a sparkle in his eye, he likes to call the Smithsonian of Maui.

The Paper Airplane Museum is located in Kahului’s Maui Mall. For more information, call (808) 877-8916.