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What Makes a Good Aerodynamic Design? Test Your Ideas with High-Performance Paper Gliders

Difficulty
Time Required Average (6-10 days)
Prerequisites None; Project times longer depending on how many gliders you build, and how many times you iterate your design.
Material Availability Readily available
Cost Low ($20 - $50)
Safety No issues

Abstract

A great way to get started in exploring aerodynamics is by building high-performance paper gliders. We're not talking folded pieces of copier paper here. These gliders are built using laminated construction methods, so they look and fly much more like the real thing. The materials are inexpensive, and the building techniques are easy to learn. You can easily turn out several planes, which makes it possible to test the effects of design changes on flight performance.

Objective

The goal of this project is to measure the change in flight characteristics of gliders resulting from changes in glider design.

Credits

Andrew Olson, Ph.D., Science Buddies
Sources
  • Editors of Science 86, 1985. THE Paper Airplane Book: The Official Book of the Second Great International Paper Airplane Contest. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
  • AG Industries, 2003. "Whitewings Science of Flight Lesson Plan," AG Industries. [accessed January 24, 2006] http://www.whitewings.com/edu/WWLessonPDF.pdf.

Cite This Page

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "What Makes a Good Aerodynamic Design? Test Your Ideas with High-Performance Paper Gliders" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 27 June 2014. Web. 23 Oct. 2014 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Aero_p009.shtml?from=Blog>

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2014, June 27). What Makes a Good Aerodynamic Design? Test Your Ideas with High-Performance Paper Gliders. Retrieved October 23, 2014 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Aero_p009.shtml?from=Blog

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Last edit date: 2014-06-27

Introduction

When you think "paper airplanes," your first thought is probably of the garden-variety glider quickly folded from a sheet of paper. This project will introduce you to an entirely different construction technique for building paper gliders. Instead of using a single sheet of ordinary paper, the parts for these gliders are built up (laminated) in several layers, cut from thicker, stiffer paper stock. With this method, you can make paper gliders that are much more like the real thing than a simple folded paper airplane. The laminated construction technique is not difficult to learn, and the materials are inexpensive. There are even commercial kits available to help you get started but, with a little experience, you'll be ready and able to try your own designs.

Terms and Concepts

To do this project, you should do research that enables you to understand the following terms and concepts:
  • fuselage,
  • airfoil,
  • camber,
  • dihedral,
  • aileron,
  • vertical stabilizer,
  • horizontal stabilizer,
  • elevator,
  • rudder,
  • center of lift,
  • center of gravity.
Questions
  • What are the three forces acting on a glider in flight?
  • What relationship between these forces holds for stable flight?

Bibliography

  • You'll definitely want to check out the Gliders section (among others) of NASA's Beginner's Guide to Aeronautics. This site is packed with useful information on the science of flight:
    http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/K-12/airplane/guided.htm.
  • This is a really good book, with pictures of many different airplane designs and information about how well they flew in the contest. The book also has chapters on paper glider design and construction, and tips for adjusting ("trimming") gliders for best flying:
    Editors of Science 86, 1985. THE Paper Airplane Book: The Official Book of the Second Great International Paper Airplane Contest. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
  • The Whitewings website has tips on laminated paper glider construction, adjustment and flying (click on the link for "Assembly/Tuning/Piloting" and step through the list of topics):
    AG Industries, 2004. "Assembly/Tuning/Piloting Whitewings," AG Industries. http://www.whitewings.com/what/index.html.
  • This website has a plan for a simple glider built with laminated construction methods. You can print the plan on cardstock or smooth Bristol board and then build the plane: Ivey, M., 2004. "High Performance Paper Airplanes," Zovirl Industries, Mark Ivey's Weblog [accessed November 14, 2006] http://zovirl.com/2004/01/15/high-performance-paper-airplanes-g-1/.

Materials and Equipment

  • The materials for this project are simple: paper and glue. However, the paper needs to be chosen carefully. Ordinary copier or notebook paper is not stiff enough. The paper used for the Whitewings kits is Japanese Kent paper, which you may be able to find at your local stationery store. Alternatively, ask for sheets of cardstock. Smooth bristol board, available at art stores, is a little heavier, but still useable. As for glue, ordinary white glue, Itoya O-Glue or PentelRoll are all fine choices.
  • The easiest way to learn the construction methods for laminated gliders is to buy and build one of the available "Whitewings" kits. Kits are available for single or multiple gliders. They are available in many hobby shops, and also online http://www.whitewings.com/.
  • Remember that each model will need to be properly adjusted ("trimmed") in order to achieve its best possible flying. See the Bibliography for more information.
  • For timing your flights, you'll need a stopwatch, or a watch with a second hand.
  • For measuring the distance of your flights, you can use yard markers on a football field, or you can use a tape measure to set up your own set of distance markers in the open area where you are flying your gliders.

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Experimental Procedure

There are many possible experiments you can try with paper gliders (for some specific examples, see the Variations section, below). Here are some suggested measurements for quantifying your experiments:
  • flight distance,
  • time aloft,
  • flight maneuvers (i.e., descriptions of the flight: did the glider stall, dive, flip over, turn right, turn left, etc.).
With regard to experimental methods, here are some things to keep in mind:
  • There will be variations in performance from flight to flight for the same glider, so you should make sure to perform repeated trials for each condition. We suggest at least five trials for each condition (more trials won't hurt).
  • To minimize variability, make all of your test flights under the same conditions.
  • Change only one variable at a time when testing. If you are interested in more than one variable, that's great! (You'll just have to make more planes.)

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Variations

Here is a sample of project ideas for experimenting with paper gliders. As your knowledge and experience grow, you will be able to add to this list on your own. The variations are arranged in order of increasing difficulty.
  • How Do Stabilizers Affect Glider Flight? As you are building the glider, leave off either the vertical or horizontal stabilizer (or build multiple gliders, with and without these parts). Test-fly the glider(s) with and without each type of stabilizer. What effect does each type of stabilizer have on flight?
  • What is the Optimal Size for a Stabilizer? Use the same basic design for a series of four or more planes, but vary the size of one of the stabilizers (vertical or horizontal) from smaller to larger than normal. Measure the flight performance of each glider. Think about how might you control for the difference in weight distribution.
  • Design for distance. Do your background research and develop a hypothesis about what type of glider will fly the furthest. Build a series of 4 (or more) gliders with one variable element changing systematically through the series to test your hypothesis.
  • Design for Time Aloft. Do your background research and develop a hypothesis about what type of glider will fly the longest. Build a series of 4 (or more) gliders with one variable element changing systematically through the series to test your hypothesis.
  • Investigating More Than One Design Element. Your hypothesis may involve more than one design element. For example, you may be interested in investigating both dihedral angle and camber. In order to compare planes with only one variable changing, you would need to build two (or more) planes for each dihedral angle you want to test, each with varying wing camber. Then you can make pair-comparisons where only dihedral angle was changed, or pair-wise comparisons where only wing camber was changed.

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