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May 26th is National Paper Airplane Day, and what better way to celebrate than learn to fold the perfect paper airplane?  Paper airplanes are a fun way to teach young people about physics and spark their interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). You can also use this activity to promote teambuilding or as a recreational activity for your next club meeting.

To fold the perfect paper airplane, you need a basic understanding of the four forces of flight: lift, drag, thrust, and weight.

  • Thrust is the force that moves the airplane in the direction of motion. Thrust is created when air is pulled in and then pushed out in an opposite direction. In a real aircraft, thrust is created by a propeller, engine, or rocket. In the case of the paper airplane, thrust is created when you release the airplane from your hand.
  • Drag is the force that is the opposite of thrust. It slows the airplane down. Drag is created by friction. The more aerodynamic your design, the less drag your plane will experience.
  • Weight is the force caused by gravity. It pulls your paper airplane down.
  • Lift is the opposite force to weight. Lift helps hold your paper airplane up in the air. The wings of your airplane help generate lift.

This video provides a short and easy to understand explanation of how these four forces affect a paper airplane.

There are many different ways to fold a paper airplane, but this post will cover three basic folds that can be customized for different flight effects.  The first fold is the dart. Like he name implies, the dart fold will result in an airplane that will fly longer distances at faster speeds. If you want to have a contest for which plane can go the fastest and farthest, then the dart fold is your best option. Watch this short video to master the dart fold:

The second fold to learn is the glider. The glider fold will result in an airplane that is slower than the dart, but will stay in the air for a longer period of time. The glider has wider wings that help keep the plane lifted in the air and make the plane more stable. Watch this video to master the glider fold:

Finally, it is always fun to learn how to fold a plane that will loop the loop!  This is the most difficult of the three folds to master, but will result in a paper airplane that will do fun aerobatic tricks. You will have better results with this fold after you have mastered both the dart and glider folds. Watch this video to learn how to fold the stunt plane.

If you enjoyed this activity at home, consider participating in a summer day camp or join a 4-H club for year long learning and fun with a purpose!  Contact your local UF IFAS Extension Office to find out about opportunities available in your community.

More Resources:

Check out the Florida 4-H Aerospace Project

Try building a paper Mars Helicopter from NASA