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Drag Is… Slow

As an airplane moves through the air, the air resists the motion of the aircraft, this resistant force is called drag. The force of drag always works in the opposite direction of motion (opposite to the thrust force).

There are many factors that affect the size of the drag force, including the shape of the aircraft, the "stickiness" of the air, and the speed of the aircraft.

In this activity, students compare the flight of a flat sheet of paper to that of a paper airplane.

The streamlined paper airplane slips smoothly through the air since its shape produces little drag. A flat piece of paper has more surface area opposing thrust, which produces more drag and slows it down. 

Planes are designed to be aerodynamic i.e. to have as little drag as possible.

Objectives

  • Determine how manipulating the design of aircraft changes the size and direction of flight forces and link those changes to changes in the aircraft’s motion.

  • Explain how the drag force is created and what factors affect it’s size and direction.

Materials

  • Per student:
    2 sheets of paper (or more, preferably recycled/reused)
    templates on how to make paper airplanes (optional)- see Other Resources on this page

Key Questions

  • Which flies/floats better?
  • How does the shape of the object affect its aerodynamics?
  • What are the forces on the paper?
  • Which forces do you change when you change the shape of the paper?

What To Do

  1. Hand out 2 sheets of paper to each student.
  2. Leave one sheet aside for the moment. With the second sheet, make a paper plane of your own design or based on a template (optional).
  3. First, throw the piece of paper and observe its path and behaviour.
  4. Next, throw the paper airplane and observe its path and behaviour.

Extensions

  • Make different shapes with the flat sheet of paper–crumpled into a ball, folded into a square or any origami shape–and test their flying ability against the paper plane.
  • Move different shaped objects through water. Fish and boats are streamlined to reduce drag or water resistance.

Other Resources

10 Paper Airplanes | Templates and folding instructions
Craft-Idea | Origami Paper Planes
Alex’s Paper Airplanes | How to Make a Classic Dart Paper Airplane