Dec. 31, 2010

Science Dad on the Aerodynamics of Paper Airplanes

by Vince Harriman

Click to enlarge images
Anticipating snow and cabin-fever over the holidays, I planned our biggest experiment yet, which I called 'The Great Paper Airplane Experiment.' Our local Boys and Girls Club (special thanks to Reggie Brodie at BGCAA for making it available!) happens to have a fabulous new facility with a full size basketball court and stage, which was the perfect indoor venue for flying paper airplanes.
The goal of the experiment was simple -- does the length of paper influence how far a paper airplane flies? For the sake of the experiment, each scientist was given three sheets of paper: 8 1/2 X 8 1/2 inches, 8 1/2 X 11 inches and 8 1/2 X 15 inches. With the help of our local printer (big thanks to everybody at Freestate Press here in Annapolis!) we color coded the sizes -- orange short planes, light blue medium planes, and pink long planes.
Test Flight Data
Our participants had all the practice paper they could fold and were asked to fold any paper airplane design they chose in three configurations -- short, medium, and long. After practicing, we marked off 'launch pads' and laid out distances in tape on the floor in concentric rings every five feet. To measure the longest flights we used a surveyor's tape measure.
Finally, I printed out 'test flight logs' on which each scientist could write down his or her name, the plane's name if it had one, the launch type (how hard the plane was thrown), the flight pattern (did it fly curvy or straight), and the distance each plane flew. Here's a pdf of the test flight logs.
We invited over 60 kids from Annapolis to help us create the planes and gather the data we would need to test our hypothesis. Parents were encouraged to help design, fold, and fly the planes.
We ended up with a good variety of planes. Most people folded variations on the basic 'dart' design, but we had some very creative entries. Again, the goal was to see in general if a certain length of paper was better than another. Several hundred planes were made of all shapes and sizes, and our scientists had a great time trying to figure out what made a good paper airplane.
A nice looking plane
Check out our data sheet (pdf).
I am attaching our complete data set because if I didn't, I would probably be accused of faking the data since it came out so regular and perfect.
The planes built with square paper flew an average only 10.5 feet, while the standard letter sheet planes flew an average 12.5 feet. Finally, the longest planes flew the longest distance, averaging 16.25 feet -- significantly longer than the other planes.
I have to say that as I watched the planes fly and looked over the Test Flight Logs I wasn't confident that we would get a statistically accurate result. In fact, I tabulated the results manually after creating the spreadsheet to confirm the numbers -- it just looked too perfect! Feel free to use the parent's guide below to conduct your own experiment. And if you upload your data to the comments sections I will include them with ours in an update. So start folding!
We ended the day handing out Certificates of Achievement to all the scientists who help us advance the art and science of paper airplane aerodynamics.
Practice flights
Another great launch

Parent's Guide:
This is a great experiment for kids of all ages that teaches both science and engineering principles. All you need is several sheets of paper of various sizes and your favorite paper airplane design.
Starting with a standard sheet of paper, fold your favorite design of paper airplane -- it can be just about any design you can think of -- then launch your plane. Next, take a standard sheet of paper and cut it down to a square. Then fold the same design as best you can again. The plane will either be shorter or longer (depending on how you oriented the sheet when building the first plane.) Give this plane a toss. Does if fly better or worse than the last one? Have its aerodynamic properties improved or become worse?
Next, take a legal sheet of paper and fold the same design again as best as you can. Now the plane will either be very short and wide or very long and narrow. How does it fly? Have you improved its aerodynamic properties or made them worse? We decided that the distance flown would be our measure of 'success', but you can modify the experiment to suit your needs. For example -- what makes a good stunt flyer? Or a good glider? We measured and recorded as many flights as we could and averaged our data.
Finally, look at your paper airplane. What attributes does it have that are improved by different sheet sizes? Are the wings bigger in one size than others? Is the plane more stable in one configuration than the others? What can you do to maximize the design based on the different sheets? What can you do to the design to make it fly better?
The internet is full of paper airplane resources -- too many to list here! You can find some here, here and here. Type 'paper airplane' into any search engine and start folding. Also, Scholastic, Inc. has instructions for schools that want to participate in the 'National Paper Airplane Contest' .


About Vince Harriman

Science Dad, AKA Vince Harriman, is a freelance writer living in Annapolis. His two sons, Beckett-6 and Rowan-2 1/2 ask him 'why' approximately 6,542 times a day.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.
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