University of Virginia
Physics Department

Flying High

A Physical Science Activity

2003 Virginia SOLs



Students will be able to:

Motivation for Learning

Driving Question

How do planes fly? Why do some planes fly faster than others? Why don't giant planes fall out of the sky? Is it possible to make planes that turn left and right? Have a variety of paper airplanes already prepared that the teacher can fly for the students. Tell them they will be able to design planes to allow them to do these things.

Background Information

It is important to realize that the basics of why paper airplanes fly, and why full size airplanes fly, are identical. They create lift and drag, and are stable or unstable for the same reasons. However paper airplanes look different than most airplanes. There are also some definite aerodynamic differences between paper airplanes and full size airplanes. These differences are apparent, but do affect how paper planes fly.

The reason paper airplanes look different is that most paper airplanes have just a wing and fold of paper on the bottom that you hold when you throw the plane. The main reason they look different is to allow the paper airplane constructor to make a plane as easily and quickly as possible. The simplest airplane is the flying wing and that is what most paper airplanes are. While the full size plane has a tail which the pilot rotates to make the plane nose up and fly slower, or down to make the plane speed up. Paper airplanes accomplish the same thing by bending the back edge of the wing up to fly slower and down to fly faster.

Paper airplanes usually have short "stubby" wings. The distance from wing tip to wing tip is called wing span and the distance from the front of the wing to the back of the wing is called the chord.

The secrets to making paper airplanes fly well are largely the same adjustments which make hand, launched gliders fly well. All paper planes need small adjustments to fly their best. One mistake is to leave the wings folded down at an angle. This reduces the lateral stability of the plane. The wings need to be the highest part of the plane. This allows the plane to fly straight or perhaps in a gradual turn. Adding a few layers of tape or a paper clip to the nose of the plane improves its stability. Time aloft for a paper airplane can be increased by either throwing a paper plane with a short wing span real high and have it glide downward or make a fragile long wing span plane and launch it gently from as high as you can reach. The launch phase is important. You want your plane to glide from as high as possible. To accomplish this you launch the plane as fast as possible, straight up. As it ascends, the force of gravity and the force of drag slow it down until it stops. From there, the plane's natural stability ensures that it begins a slow gliding flight.

1. The World Record Paper Airplane Book by Ken Blackburn, Jeff Lammers. Available from This is an excellent little book that cost less than $15. It has many paper airplane designs.
2. See This is an excellent website by the authors of the book in reference 1. This website also gives references to other paper airplane books written by the same authors. This site even gives print out instructions on how to make paper airplanes.

 Teacher Information

Rules for Flights:

  1. The thrower must stand behind the start line to throw the plane.
  2. The plane must stay within the boundaries.
  3. If a plane flies out of bounds, they will be given another chance (only one).
  4. If the plane flies out of bounds the second time, the flight is disqualified.

Day of Flight Contest: Preparations for flights:

1. The measurers should mark out the area into meters. The measurement should begin at the starting point.
2. The boundaries should be selected

Student Activity

To print out the Student Copy only, click here.



Day One

  1. Construct a paper airplane using the materials provided. The design can be any way that you would like. The purpose of this particular study is to make a paper airplane that can fly the greatest distance. It is also possible to have other criteria: highest, longest flight, most turns, etc.
  2. Each group is to choose a thrower, timer, distance measurer, and recorder.
  3. Three official test flights are to be completed, with no more than 20 minutes between offical flights. The data are to be recorded in Table 1 of the Data Sheet.
  4. In between test flights, students can conduct unofficial flights in an area other than the official test range to test small changes they make to the airframe, as well as allowing them to practice the best type of throw to acheive the best flight.
  5. After the test flights are completed, calculate the airplane's speed.

Day Two

  1. The timer should stand close to the last line drawn.
  2. The measurer should go to the spot where measurement starts as soon as the plane is down.
  3. Measurements are to be given to the recorder.
  4. The recorder should place the data in Table 2 of the Data Sheet.
  5. After the competition has been completed, the students should return to the room and begin their calculations.
  6. The fastest of the 3 flights should be recorded on the board by the recorder of each group.


Answer the following on a separate sheet of paper:

  1. How did you calculate speed?
  2. How would you want your data to change if you were trying to decrease speed?
  3. Were the speeds you calculated actual or average speeds?
  4. Did you notice anything about the slowest airplanes and the shape of their flight paths? Discuss.
  5. Compare the designs of the fastest airplanes with those of the slowest. How are they alike? Different?
  6. How would you redesign your airplane to make it move more quickly? More slowly?

Data Sheet

To print out the Data Sheet only, click here.

Table 1



Flight 1

Flight 2
Flight 3


Table 2



Flight 1

Flight 2
Flight 3



Students with Special Needs

All students should be able to participate in this activity.

Click here for further information on laboratories with students with special needs.



Answers to Questions:

  1. Speed is calculated by dividing the distance traveled by the airplane by the time it took to travel the distance. (speed = distance/time)
  2. In order for the speed to decrease, distance must decrease or time must increase.
  3. Average speed. Actual speed changed throughout the flight.
  4. Some of the slowest airplanes probably take a curved path. Students should realize that the curved path caused the airplane to move a shorter horizontal distance.
  5. The faster airplanes would be sleeker and glide smoothly through the air. The slower airplanes may often be larger and have wings that collide in the air. They also have shapes that allow them to hover as they fall, again slowing them down.
  6. To construct faster airplanes, students should design them so that they have fewer folds and attachments that make them cumbersome. To design slower airplanes, students should suggest increasing the size of the wings or adding folds so that the airplane will float more in the air, thus increasing the length of time of the flight.