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Paper Plane Flying Contest

What makes a paper airplane fly? Air! 

The first consideration in making a plane fly, for short or long distances, are the four forces that act on an aircraft– drag, gravity, thrust and lift . The next consideration is how easily a plane moves through the air, or its aerodynamics.

Planes that push a lot of air are said to have a lot of drag or resistance to moving through the air. If you want your plane to fly as far as possible, you need a plane with as little drag as possible.

A second force that planes need to overcome is gravity. You need to keep your plane's weight to a minimum to help fight against gravity's pull to the ground.

Thrust is the forward movement of the plane. The initial thrust comes from the muscles of the "pilot" as the paper airplane is launched. After this, paper planes are really gliders, converting altitude (height) to forward motion.

Lift comes when the air below the plane wing is pushing up harder than the air above it is pushing down. It is this difference in pressure that enables the plane to fly.

Pressure can be reduced on a wing's surface by making the air move over it more quickly. Curving the wings of a plane will enable air to move more quickly over the top of the wing, resulting in an upward push, or lift, on the wing. If the wing is too curved however, it will have either little effect or perhaps even the opposite effect.

Long flights come when these four forces–drag, gravity, thrust, and lift–are balanced.

Some airplanes, such as the Concord, are built to move extremely fast. These planes, like darts, do not have a lot of drag and lift: they depend on extra thrust to overcome gravity.

Planes that are built to spend a long time in the air, such as a Boeing 787, usually have a lot of lift but little thrust. These planes fly a slow and gentle flight.


  • 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.


  • Per Class:
    6-7 examples of paper airplane instructions downloaded from paper plane-making websites: see Other Resources below

  • Per student:
    3 sheets of paper (preferably recycled or reused)
    glue or tape
    markers (for decoration)
    paper clip (optional)

Key Questions

  • Why did some planes fly better than others?
  • What helps a plane achieve the farthest distance?
  • What can you change in an aircraft’s design to turn the plane left or right?

What To Do

Preparation: Print out various examples of paper airplane instructions and set them up throughout the classroom as stations.

Part 1:

  1. Students explore the stations and hypothesize which one(s) will travel the furthest and/or have the fanciest flight (spins, loops, spirals).
  2. Their hypothesis should be based on what they have learned about the four forces of flight.

Part 2:

  1. Hand out the materials to the students.
  2. Each student is to design and build their own paper aircraft, keeping in mind the four forces affecting flight.
  3. Two awards will be given: 1) the furthest distance travelled; and 2) the fanciest flight (spins, loops, spirals, etc.).
  4. Students are allowed to make up to 3 airplanes but only 1 can be entered into the contest. No other sheets of paper will be handed out.
  5. Allow 25 minutes for design and building and 15 minutes for testing.


  • Explain how you accounted for each of the four forces of flight while building your model.
  • What could you do differently?
  • How do rudders, elevators, and ailerons change the plane’s direction?
  • How could you incorporate these different features into your design?

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