How Far Will It Fly? Build & Test Paper Planes with Different Drag
AbstractJust one sheet of paper can lead to a whole lot of fun. How? Paper planes! All you have to know is how to fold and you can have a simple plane in a matter of minutes! But what design should you use to build the best plane? In this aerodynamics science project, you will change the basic design of a paper plane and see how this affects its flight. Specifically, you will increase how much drag the plane experiences and see if this changes how far the paper plane flies. There is a lot of cool science in this project, such as how the different forces allow a plane to fly, so get ready to start folding!
Michelle Maranowski, PhD, Science Buddies
Teisha Rowland, PhD, Science Buddies
Determine whether the distance a paper plane flies is affected by increasing how much drag it experiences.
Paper airplanes are fun and easy to make. Just fold a piece of paper into a simple plane and send it soaring into the sky with a flick of your wrist. Watching it float and glide in the air gives you a very satisfying and happy feeling.
But what allows the paper plane to glide through the air? And why does a paper plane finally land? To find out, we will talk about the science behind flying a paper plane and the different forces that get a paper plane to fly and land. These same forces apply to real airplanes, too. A force is something that pushes or pulls on something else. When you throw a paper plane in the air, you are giving the plane a push to move forward. That push is a type of force called thrust. While the plane is flying forward, air is moving over and under the wings and is providing a force called lift to the plane. If the paper plane has enough thrust and the wings are properly designed, the plane will have a nice long flight.
But there is more than lack of thrust and poor wing design that gets a paper plane to come back to Earth. As a paper plane moves through the air, the air pushes against the plane, slowing it down. This force is called drag. To think about drag, imagine you are in a moving car and you put your hand outside of the window. The force of the air pushing your hand back as you move forward is drag. Finally, the weight of the paper plane affects its flight and brings it to a landing. Weight is the force of Earth's gravity acting on the paper plane. Figure 1 below shows how all four of these forces, thrust, lift, drag, and weight, act upon a paper plane.
A paper airplane in flight will experience an initial thrust forward which begins its flight and lift from air which will help push it upward. These forces are counteracted by drag that acts in the opposite direction as thrust and gravity which will constantly pull the plane towards the ground.
Figure 1. When a paper plane is flying, the four forces of thrust, lift, drag, and weight are acting upon the plane, affecting how well its journey through the air goes.
Well, what do you think? Would you like to start experimenting with these forces? In this aerodynamics science project, you will make a basic paper plane and then slightly alter its shape to increase how much drag is acting on it. You will investigate how far the basic paper plane flies and compare that to how far it flies when the drag is increased. How will adding drag affect your plane's flight? You can answer this question with just a flick of your wrist.
Terms and Concepts
- Wind Tunnel
- Computer Simulation
- What is drag and how does it affect airplane flight?
- How do you think you could change how much drag a paper plane has?
- What provides thrust to a real airplane?
These sites explain how paper planes and airplanes fly.
- Shaw, R. (2010, September 10). Dynamics of Flight. Retrieved November 24, 2010.
- Doherty, P. (1999). Paper Airplanes. Exploratorium Magazine Online. Vol. 23, Number 2. Retrieved November 24, 2010.
The following resource can be used to convert inches and feet to metric units (i.e., centimeters and meters):
- Science Made Simple, Inc. (n.d.). Length conversion using online length converted by Science Made Simple. Retrieved February 13, 2013.
For help creating graphs, try this website:
- National Center for Education Statistics, (n.d.). Create a Graph. Retrieved June 25, 2020.
Materials and Equipment
- Paper (3 sheets)
- Metric ruler
- Masking tape (1 roll). Alternatively, if you are testing this project outside, you can use sticks or rocks.
- Tape measure
- Lab notebook
Flying the Planes
- Follow the instructions for the "intermediate" design here to build a paper airplane: https://www.sciencebuddies.org/teacher-resources/lesson-plans/instructions-paper-airplane.pdf.
- Build two more so that you have a total of three paper planes. They should all look identical.
- Make a data table in your lab notebook, like Table 1 below, where you can record the data you get from your experiment.
|Paper Plane||Flight 1||Flight 2||Flight 3||Flight 4||Flight 5||Average|
|Plane 1 with Added Drag|
|Plane 2 with Added Drag|
|Plane 3 with Added Drag|
- Go to a large area to fly your paper plane. Make sure that there is no foot or car traffic at the area. A long hallway or your school gym is a good location. If you are flying your plane outside, like in a baseball field or on a basketball court, do your experiment on a day when there is no wind.
- Tear off a 5-foot-long piece of masking tape and tape it to the ground in front of you, going from left to right. This will be the starting line from which you will fly the paper planes. If you are doing this science project outside, you could use a line of sticks or rocks to mark the starting point.
- Practice throwing or launching the paper planes. You will want to launch the planes in exactly the same way every time. Hold the planes at exactly the same spot on the plane every time you launch a plane.
- Once you have finished practicing, it is time to start the experiment. Place your toe on the starting line you prepared earlier and then throw one of your planes.
Use the tape measure to measure how far (in centimeters or meters) the paper plane flew from the starting line. Record this distance in the data table in your lab notebook.
- This will be "Flight 1" for "Plane 1."
Science is done in metric units (e.g., centimeters and meters) so your data should be written as such. If your tape measure does not have metric units, you can convert inches or feet to centimeters or meters using this website:
- Science Made Simple, Inc. (n.d.). Length conversion using online length converter by Science Made Simple. Retrieved February 13, 2013, from http://www.sciencemadesimple.com/length_conversion.php
Repeat steps 7-8 four more times using the same plane, trying to throw the plane as similarly as possible. Doing these repeats will help ensure that your data is accurate and reproducible.
- Before you fly the plane, make sure that it is in good condition and that the folds and points are still sharp.
- Record the distances in the data table in your lab notebook all in the same row as "Plane 1," as "Flight 2," Flight 3," "Flight 4," or "Flight 5."
Once you have flown plane 1 five times, add flaps to the back of the plane to increase its drag, as shown in Figure 2.
- Cut four slits that are each roughly 2.5 cm long along the back edge of the wings. One in the center of each wing, and one where each wing meets the central fold.
- This will result in four tabs (two on each wing). Fold two of the tabs up 90 degrees, and two of the tabs down 90 degrees, as shown in Figure 2.
- How do you think this increases the plane's drag?
Figure 2. Left: the original plane. Right: a plane with flaps added to the back to increase drag.
Using plane 1 with added drag, repeat steps 7-9.
- Record the distances the plane flies in your data table in the row titled "Plane 1 with Added Drag."
- In your lab notebook, record any observations about how this plane appears to fly compared to how plane 1 flew before you added drag.
Repeat steps 10-11 using one of the other two planes you made.
- Record the distances the plane flies in the row titled "Plane 2" and then "Plane 2 with Added Drag."
- In your lab notebook, record any observations you make.
Repeat steps 10-11 using the last of the three planes you made. (This plane should not have been flown previously.)
- Record the distances the plane flies in the row titled "Plane 3" and then "Plane 3 with Added Drag."
- In your lab notebook, record any observations you make.
Analyzing Your Data
Using the data you collected in the data table in your lab notebook, calculate the average distance that each plane traveled, with and without added drag. Record your results in the column labeled "Average" in the data table.
- For example, if plane 1 traveled 4.60, 4.14, 5.00, 5.33, and 3.86 meters on flight 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, respectively, to figure out its average distance you would first add these five distances together (which gives you 22.93 m) and then divide this number by five, which gives you an average distance of 4.59 meters.
Use the data from your data table to create a bar graph.
- You can plot your data by hand or you can plot your data online at Create A Graph.
- Label the x-axis (the horizontal axis) "Paper Plane" and label the y-axis (the vertical axis) "Average Flight Distance." You will have six bars, one for each of the planes without added drag, and one for each of the planes with added drag. Make each bar go up to the average distance that plane traveled.
What does your graph tell you? How did adding drag to your paper planes affect how far they flew?
- Can you explain your results in terms of how forces allow a plane to fly? Hint: Re-read the Introduction in the Background tab.
Ask an Expert
- Does size matter? Make planes of different sizes but keep the design and the type of paper you use the same. Do bigger planes fly further?
- Do more complicated planes fly further? In order words, does the number of folds that you use to make a paper plane affect the distance that it flies? Try this out using the same size and type of paper.
- Does the type of paper you use affect how far the paper plane flies? Try making paper planes out of different types of paper, such as printer paper, construction paper, and newspaper. Make all of the planes using the same design and fly them as similarly as you can. Does one type of paper seem to work best for making paper planes? Does one type work the worst? You may need to do several trials to see a trend.
- Some people like to add paperclips to their paper planes to make them fly better. But where should the paper clips be placed for the best flight? Try adding paperclips to the back, the front, the middle, or the wings. You can add one paper clip or several, but try to be consistent with how many you use. Take notes in your lab notebook so you know what you tested. Does adding paperclips somewhere make the paper plane's flight better, worse, or have no effect at all?
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