Paper Airplanes: How Do they Fly?

Last Update: May 31st, 2022

Early in childhood, one of the most basic origami artworks children will ever learn because of its unique capability to glide through the air. Fascinating mechanisms as they are, paper airplanes are mesmerizing to children the world over for their grace in flight. Without engines of their own, these paper wonders have seemingly found a way to glide through the air despite the absence of sophisticated machinery.

What forces come into play whenever paper airplanes take flight? What elements affect the origami artwork that allows it to gracefully weave through the air? What properties of matter empower mere paper in a way that allows it flight? To further understand the science behind the flight of paper airplanes, it would be ideal to first, see it in action.

Making a Paper Airplane

Through this exercise, you and your kids will not only be able to enjoy a working and amusing paper airplane but you will also be able to enjoy a quick STEM exercise that will develop fine motor skills, problem-solving capabilities, and critical thinking.

Below are two basic ways to fold a paper plane origami. You may use these designs to study how the form affects paper planes mid-flight. The materials for this project are all affordable and easy to access. All you need is some paper, a pair of scissors, and a ruler for maximum precision to make your very own paper airplane. For optimal results, it is recommended that you use a flat, thin-edged ruler. Make sure that the creases made are firm, especially around the edges. You may also make a double-sided tape available in case you want to make sure that the wings don’t separate and open during flight.

The Dart

The Dart the most prominent and basic version of the paper airplane that everyone has probably already learned. The design is triangular, making the design particularly faster than most other versions.

The first step is to position the paper vertically – the longer sides on the left and right and the shorter side at the top and bottom. Maintaining the paper in this position, fold the paper in half vertically.

After making a firm crease, unfold the paper and fold each of the top corners into the center line, forming a house-like shape (triangular roof and rectangular body). Afterward, fold the top edges into the centerline. While still in the position it started with, fold the plane in half toward you. Following the first vertical line, fold the paper in half again. Fold the wings up, matching the top edges with the bottom edge of the body. As an optional last step, Add some double stick tape to the inside of the body to make sure the plane wings don’t separate.

The Stealth

The Stealth is named the way it is because of its aesthetic similarity to real-life stealth bombers. In terms of paper origami airplanes, The Stealth is built for distance. Highly aerodynamic, The Stealth flies with grace and at a relatively gentle pace.

Similar to the way The Dart is started, fold the paper in half vertically. After a solid crease, unfold the paper and fold each of the top corners into the centerline, creating the same house-looking shape you found yourself having in creating the dart.

Fold the peak or the tip of the triangle shape toward you reaching about ¾ inches of the way from the bottom of the paper. Next, fold both top corners into the centerline once more. To lock the shape in place, fold the remaining tip over the two flaps at the centerline.

To finish the origami artwork, fold the plane in half away from you and fold the wings down 1” from the bottom of the plane. The wings of The Stealth, compared to The Dart, are broader. Fold up the sides of each wing half an inch tall. To improve flight capabilities, cut two small slits at the back of each wing and fold up the tabs. You may add double stick tapes to improve durability.

The Science Behind Paper Airplanes

Using your newly crafted paper airplanes, test them out make observations on how the form and the environment interact.

Paper airplanes don’t necessarily fly, they use the make-shift wings that you design to glide through the air. Essentially, they rely on the initial altitude at which they’re released and their weight to breeze to the ground.

Since paper airplanes don’t have engines or propellers to create their own thrust, they have no means to maintain the speed to be airborne for a long time. The energy will then have to come from the thrower of the paper airplane. 

What forces are at play here?

Aerodynamics

What makes the paper airplane move the way it does? Air — this is an element present all around you. To personally feel and experience the way air interacts with airplanes, you can try holding your hand in front of you and position your palm facing sideways with your thumb pointing up. From this position, swing your hand back and forth. Remember this sensation and compare it to the sensation when you position your palm in parallel to the ground and move it sideways. How are they different? Scientifically, the parallel position should yield less resistance.  This is how and why an airplane moves easily through the air.

Drag and Gravity

When planes push the air aside using the area they cover, they are said to have a lot of drag or resistance when they move through the air. Paper airplanes, due to their lightweight and thin build, have very little drag, allowing them to weave through the air without too much resistance. Gravity also bears down on the paper, albeit with minimal effect due to its light constitution.

Thrust and Lift

Two other forces, “thrust” and “lift” also help paper planes have extended flights. Thrust is considered to be the forward movement of the plane generated by the initial force that comes from the muscles of the one who throws the origami airplane. Lift, on the other hand, is the force coming when the air below the wings. This air, when pushed aside by the mass of the airplane, pushes up harder than the air above the plane is pushing down. This difference in pressure enables the plane to fly and glide the way it does. 

This is the science behind the ability of paper airplanes to fly. It is a combination of intermingling scientific principles that makes many things possible. 

Elena Jones

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