Paper airplanes

Make paper airplanes, learn what forces make them fly, and improve your plane's flying skills.
Science content
Physics: Motion and Forces, Newton’s Laws, Gravity (K, 2, 6)
Physics: Energy forms, Conservation of Energy (1, 3, 4, 5)
  • sheets of letter sized paper, recycled if possible
  • open classroom or hallway to fly paper planes. If outdoors it should not be windy
  • optional: metre marks along the floor or walls

Teach students how to make a basic paper airplane. If they know already, let them fold their way and start testing immediately. Make sure students make the creases tight and neat as they can.

(Plane design ideas with step by step instructions at many websites, including and…)

Forces on an airplane
Ask students to think about the forces on their planes as they fly them. Students can alter their models now if they want, but for now, the emphasis should be on watching them fly and thinking about the forces involved.

After a while, stop the flying action, gather as a group and discuss what forces they think keep the plane in the air. Introduce terms and round out the concepts as appropriate for the grade level:
1. Thrust is the forward force on an airplane. Your arm muscles throwing the paper airplane generate initial thrust which send the paper airplane forward. (In a real airplane, thrust is from a propellor or jet engine and is continually acting as the plane flies.)
2. Drag is the force that slows the plane down as it pushes against the air it is moving through. It is a kind of friction and is also called called air resistance. It acts in the opposite direction from thrust. Thrust must be equal to or greater than drag for a plane to move forward, hence your paper airplane slows down as the energy from the initial thrust is used up. The more streamlined an object is, the less drag it has. (Airliners retract their landing gear between take off and landing to reduce drag on the landing gear which would otherwise rip it off.)
3. Gravity is the force pulling the plane downwards. It acts on the mass of the plane, giving it weight.
4. Lift is the force that pushes the airplane up, acting in the opposite direction of gravity. Lift is produced by the wings and the air flowing around them (either the wing or the air must be moving - they just need to move relative to each other).
The tilt of the airplane and the angle of the wing means that air flowing off the wing flows downwards. This downwards force pushes back up against the wing, and lifts the wing (because of Newton's 3rd Law of action and reaction). (The Bernoulli effect has previously been used to explain lift, but is now known to be insignificant, or even incorrect - it doesn't explain how a plane can fly upside down.)

Depending on the strength of each of these forces, the plane will fly forwards, downwards, upwards or stop.

As an aside, drag and lift can be felt with a hand out of a car window:
Holding your palm flat against the wind you can feel the air pushing against it: drag, or air resistance. If you make a fist, your hand is smaller and there should be less drag on it.
If you hold your flat hand straight out of the window, then slowly tip it so the front edge is tipped up a bit, the air is directed downwards and pushes your hand up. The effect is quite dramatic and nicely demonstrates action and reaction.

Continuing the lesson, ask students how they might make their plane go further. Ideas following.
More thrust by throwing more strongly (they are probably doing this anyway).
More streamlined to reduce drag (change how it is folded so it has a narrower front),.
More lift by changing the angle of attack (point it upwards to start). To tip the nose of the airplane upwards during flight (and keep the angle of attack optimal), bend up the back of the wings a little (see photo). A little bend goes a long way. Air flowing off this bend will push the back of the airplane down, which will lift the nose.
If the nose rises upwards and then the plane drops, the plane is stalling. Bend the back of the wing downwards, to make more air flow downwards off the back of the wing and lift it, so tipping the nose downwards - now the nose does not rise so fast and the plane will not stall. Keep your adjustments small.
You may also want to discuss adding other folds, such as winglets, to their plane. Winglets are additional upwards folds on the end of the wing, and reduce a vortex of air that pushes the wing down.
Flaps cut into the back edge of the wing can also increase lift, or be bent in opposite directions to make the plane spin.

Encourage students to share designs and tips on how to throw their plane, and allow more time for testing.
They can measure and record how far their plane goes. Generate a class graph of the distances achieved, and discuss factors that might increase flying distance.

Airplanes modelling how birds change direction
Fly an airplane to see how long it stays aloft.
Then bend up the back of the wings a little (see photo) - it should stay aloft a little longer.
Then bend the back of the wings down - the plane should dive to the ground soon after launch.
Try bending one up and one down (see photo) - at least one of the planes will roll as it flies.
Birds move their feathers on their wings, to change the direction of their flight.

Airplanes modelling bird wing shapes
Build differently-shaped airplanes, to model how some birds have wide wings for gliding, and others have swept back wings for fast flying. See this link for designs: See the paper raptor designs from this link:
Some birds of prey have swept back wings, so that they can dive at high speeds and catch other birds (e.g. peregrine falcon).
Some birds have long, wide wings to help them glide and look for prey e.g. hawks, eagles. They can open their wing feathers at the ends to keep the airflow around the wingtips smooth and to prevent stalling at low speeds.
Some birds have short broad wings and long tails to allow tight manoeuvring and quick takeoffs e.g. woodland hawks. However, they need to flap a lot.

Newton's Laws in a paper airplane
First Law - objects will stay stopped or in constant motion until a force acts on them (the force of your hand makes the plane go forward, the force of gravity points it to the ground)
Second Law - F=ma: for a constant force a smaller mass will accelerate more than a larger mass; a greater force will make the same mass accelerate more (a greater push from your hand will make the plane go further)
Third Law - for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; when an object pushes on another it gets pushed back with equal force (your hand pushes on the plane and the plane pushes back on your hand, sending it forwards)

Grades taught
Gr K
Gr 1
Gr 2
Gr 4
Gr 5
Gr 6
Gr 7