Paper airplane flight challenge

Not sure about a new design? Scientists and engineers often start with a model. With a template, you can test new ideas on a small scale before going any further. They are also cheaper, easier to produce, and often exhibit design flaws.

For us at home, the paper airplane continues to serve as a popular model for exploring physics, aerodynamics and engineering. Find out what makes a paper airplane fly longer, farther and higher with this design challenge: all you need is a piece of paper!

Via Matthew Butler on GIPHY

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Gather materials

Before we start building, we need to prepare to test all of our designs. Find a space in your home where paper planes can fly safely. Take a ruler and use duct tape to mark every 12 inches along the floor. Use the Paper Airplane Data Collection Worksheet to record the distance of several airplane flights.

Build a basic design

Using recycled materials from all over your home, fold a “dart base” paper plane.

How far does your basic dart plane fly? Do you have any ideas for making your plane fly further?

Test some variations

Like all airplanes, paper airplanes experience four forces: gravity, thrust, lift, and drag. Simple changes, such as wing size, body weight, and throwing power, can dramatically alter the forces experienced by your aircraft.

Dart plane with arrows indicating the impact of thrust, lift, drag and gravity.
Airplanes experience four forces in flight: lift, thrust, drag and gravity. Credit: Jennifer Powers

Get creative and adjust various aspects of your plane. Here are some ideas to get you started:

# 1: increase lift

As the aircraft moves, the air moves rapidly over the wings. This creates lower pressure on the wings, allowing the high pressure under the wings to lift the aircraft. Try making wider wings or wings that curl up or down at the ends.

# 2: limit drag

Air molecules push against the front of the plane as it moves, slowing it down. Make sure your plane’s nose is sharp and the body is light.

# 3: change the thrust

When you launch your plane, you are providing thrust, which moves the plane forward through the air. This forward movement causes the air molecules to move up and down the wings. Does the force or angle at which you launch your plan have an impact?

# 4: try a new material

The weight of the plane can pull it down. How does heavier or lighter paper change your plane?

Design your own plane

Put your design skills to the test with a paper airplane flight challenge! After you’ve created so many test planes, you should have a good idea of ​​what goes into making a paper plane that can fly long distances.

The challenge

Gather the members of your household and see who can produce the model airplane that flies the furthest. Remember to take into account the forces that your aircraft will experience when designing your aircraft.

Reflection questions

1. Are there other ways to define the success of a paper airplane than distance?
2. What changes did you make to the design of your original aircraft?
3. How did people in your household design their planes differently?
4. What surprised you the most about your airplane tests?

What is science?

All planes, whether they are in your home or 35,000 feet in the sky, fly because the forces pushing and pulling them are balanced. It may sound simple, but there are many important design choices that go into successfully keeping an aircraft in the air.

Although more than a century has passed since humans first achieved powered flight, new aircraft designs are still emerging. Researchers are particularly interested in ways to make airplanes more environmentally friendly. Over the years, NASA has developed and tested new aviation technologies, including ways to reduce fuel consumption and noise pollution. Recently, Airbus revealed a new aircraft design that promises to release no emissions into the atmosphere.

A new Airbus aircraft design shown in motion from multiple angles.
Credit: Airbus

Related links

Want to learn more about the aerodynamics of paper planes? Start with a few tips from the world record holder for longest paper airplane flight: Aerodynamics Explained by World Record Paper Aircraft Designer

Looking to become an experienced aircraft dossier? Discover Fold N ‘Fly for basic and expert level tutorials.

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