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paper airplane research project

How Far Will It Fly? Build & Test Paper Planes with Different Drag

Michelle Maranowski, PhD, Science Buddies Teisha Rowland, PhD, Science Buddies

paper airplane research project

Determine whether the distance a paper plane flies is affected by increasing how much drag it experiences.


Paper airplanes are fun and easy to make. Just fold a piece of paper into a simple plane and send it soaring into the sky with a flick of your wrist. Watching it float and glide in the air gives you a very satisfying and happy feeling.

But what allows the paper plane to glide through the air? And why does a paper plane finally land? To find out, we will talk about the science behind flying a paper plane and the different forces that get a paper plane to fly and land. These same forces apply to real airplanes, too. A force is something that pushes or pulls on something else. When you throw a paper plane in the air, you are giving the plane a push to move forward. That push is a type of force called thrust . While the plane is flying forward, air is moving over and under the wings and is providing a force called lift to the plane. If the paper plane has enough thrust and the wings are properly designed, the plane will have a nice long flight.

But there is more than lack of thrust and poor wing design that gets a paper plane to come back to Earth. As a paper plane moves through the air, the air pushes against the plane, slowing it down. This force is called drag . To think about drag, imagine you are in a moving car and you put your hand outside of the window. The force of the air pushing your hand back as you move forward is drag. Finally, the weight of the paper plane affects its flight and brings it to a landing. Weight is the force of Earth's gravity acting on the paper plane. Figure 1 below shows how all four of these forces, thrust, lift, drag, and weight, act upon a paper plane.

A force diagram for a paper plane where it is acted on by thrust, lift, drag, and gravity

A paper airplane in flight will experience an initial thrust forward which begins its flight and lift from air which will help push it upward. These forces are counteracted by drag that acts in the opposite direction as thrust and gravity which will constantly pull the plane towards the ground.

Well, what do you think? Would you like to start experimenting with these forces? In this aerodynamics science project, you will make a basic paper plane and then slightly alter its shape to increase how much drag is acting on it. You will investigate how far the basic paper plane flies and compare that to how far it flies when the drag is increased. How will adding drag affect your plane's flight? You can answer this question with just a flick of your wrist.

Terms and Concepts


These sites explain how paper planes and airplanes fly.

The following resource can be used to convert inches and feet to metric units (i.e., centimeters and meters):

For help creating graphs, try this website:

Materials and Equipment

Experimental Procedure

Flying the planes.

Two paper planes with one plane having flaps added to the back of the wings

Analyzing Your Data

icon scientific method

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Paper Airplane Experiment

The paper airplane experiment, as well as being great fun, is a chance for us to study something called 'The Laws of Aerodynamics'.

This article is a part of the guide:

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paper airplane research project

When you throw a flimsy paper dart across a room, you might not realize that it follows the same laws of flight as a Jumbo Jet!

With just a few pieces of paper and a little patience, you can explore these laws and find out how a big piece of metal manages to stay in the air.

For this experiment, we are going to chose five different designs of plane. One place to look is , for instructions on how to make these. You can use any design you like, as long as they are different and you don't use any scissors or tape to make them.

In the paper airplane experiment, we are going to test which designs fly the furthest. Some of the designs have a sharp point so do not throw them at anybody's face!

paper airplane research project

paper airplane research project

You should work out an average distance flown for each type of plane in your paper airplane experiment.

However, we are going to use something called an adjusted average. Do not use the lowest and highest figures to work out your average, just the three in the middle. This is because; in an experiment like this, a gust of wind or a bad throw can make one or more of your results wrong. This is called an outlier-data .

After you have worked out the average for each, you can plot a bar chart and discuss the results with your class. Which planes flew the furthest? Why do you think they were the best fliers?

For some tips, please see the NASA site for some advice on the Laws of Aerodynamics.

There are many more experiments you can perform with paper airplanes. Maybe this is the first step on you journey to being an airplane engineer or designer!

Figure 1 - The distance flown by paper airplanes.

Martyn Shuttleworth (Sep 21, 2008). Paper Airplane Experiment. Retrieved Mar 13, 2023 from

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Science Experiment: Aerodynamics - Paper Airplanes

07/15/2021 | Science Experiments

Try some at Home! What You Need :

Do an experiment with three paper airplanes folding the exact same way with the exact same size of paper. Fly all three planes and measure how far they go. What happens if you add one paperclip to each? What happens of you add 2? Or 3? Record your results.

Websites, Printables & Activities:


You can also ask a math and science expert for homework help by calling the Ask Rose Homework Hotline . They provide FREE math and science homework help to Indiana students in grades 6-12.

Use your indyPL Library Card to check out books about Paper Airplanes at any of our locations , or check out e-books and e-audiobooks from home right to your device. If you have never used Axis 360 or OverDrive before, you can learn how to use them for both e-books and audiobooks .

Need help? Ask a Library staff member at any of our locations or call, text, or email Ask-a-Librarian . The Tinker Station helpline at (317) 275-4500 is also available. It is staffed by device experts who can answer questions about how to read, watch and listen on a PC, tablet or phone.

Aerodynamic for Kids

A group of lively, highly creative third graders visited the Learning Curve recently to explore aerodynamics. They built, tested, and tweaked glider designs using strips of paper, straws, and tape. Their intense focus during construction and delight as they launched the gliders along the designated indoor flight path inspired me to create this list of kid friendly books about flight. I hope it encourages the young flight enthusiasts in your life to explore the mechanics of aerodynamics!

Flight Book Cover

Riveting Reads for Curious Kids

Grant, R. G.

From the early days of flight up through the space program, this book shares interesting tidbits about the evolution of human flight. It features "Weird World" highlights and includes a reference section with historic moments in flight, aviation heroes, glossary, great aircraft and websites where eager learners can discover even more about flight.

Wings Book Cover

Birds, Bees, Biplanes, and Other Things With Wings

Turner, Tracey

From insects (the first creatures on Earth to have wings) all the way to spacecraft, this colorfully illustrated book shares a wealth of information about flight and how it works in nature and in human made machines.

Wood, Wire, Wings Book Cover

Wood, Wire, Wings

Emma lilian todd invents an airplane.

Larson, Kirsten W.

This illustrated biography shares the story of Emma Lilian Todd's innovations in the early days of aviation. Some of her inventions continue to be part of airplane design today! Also available as an eBook.

Brought to you by CU Engineering (University of Colorado Boulder)

FREE K-12 standards-aligned STEM

curriculum for educators everywhere!

Find more at .

Hands-on Activity Paper Airplanes: Building, Testing, & Improving. Heads Up!

Grade Level: 6 (5-7)

Time Required: 45 minutes

Expendable Cost/Group: US $1.00

Group Size: 1

Activity Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Physical Science

NGSS Performance Expectations:

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Curriculum in this Unit Units serve as guides to a particular content or subject area. Nested under units are lessons (in purple) and hands-on activities (in blue). Note that not all lessons and activities will exist under a unit, and instead may exist as "standalone" curriculum.

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Engineering connection, learning objectives, materials list, worksheets and attachments, more curriculum like this, introduction/motivation, troubleshooting tips, activity extensions, activity scaling, additional multimedia support, user comments & tips.

Engineering… designed to work wonders

An image shows three cartoon paper airplanes flying in the air.

Engineers often create small-size models of a new product to test its design. This is especially true with airplanes. Model testing tells engineers how a design responds to different air conditions and aircraft shapes, and lets them experiment with the control surfaces that are used to steer the aircraft. Using small models guides engineers to discard prototypes that do not work, which is a smarter option than than throwing away full-size (large and expensive to build) aircraft that do not work.

After this activity, students should be able to:

Educational Standards Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards. All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN) , a project of D2L ( In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g. , by state; within source by type; e.g. , science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc .

Ngss: next generation science standards - science, common core state standards - math.

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International Technology and Engineering Educators Association - Technology

State standards, colorado - math, colorado - science.

Each student needs:

For the class to share:

paper airplane research project

Students are introduced to the art of designing airplanes through paper airplane constructions. The goal is for students to learn important aircraft design considerations and how engineers must iterate their designs to achieve success.

preview of 'Take Off with Paper Airplanes' Lesson

Students learn about airplane control surfaces on tails and wings, and engineering testing wherein one variable is changed while others are held constant. Through the associated activity, they compare the performance of a single paper airplane design while changing its shape, size and flap positions...

preview of 'Airplane Tails & Wings: Are You in Control?' Lesson

Students act as if they are engineers designing gliders, aiming to improve the flight distance and time in the air. This activity brings together students' knowledge of engineering and airplanes, applying what they have previously learned about lift, weight, thrust and drag to glider models, as well...

preview of 'Balsa Glider Competition' Activity

Students learn about kites and gliders and how these models can help in understanding the concept of flight. Then students move on to conduct the associated activity, during which teams design and build their own balsa wood glider models and experiment with different control surfaces, competing for ...

preview of 'Will It Fly?' Lesson

Paper airplanes are gliders. They have a main body, and generally two wings. Some are more complex, with tails, rudders and flaps. The wings compress the air below the paper airplane, creating high pressure, and thus the airplane is able to "sit" and glide on the air. Moving the rudders, ailerons, or flaps up or down can change the flight path of an airplane. For example, folding down the wing flaps can result in a nosedive and folding up the flaps can point the airplane in an upward direction. (Show the class an overhead transparency of the Blank Plane Diagram  and have students come up to the board and identify/label the various parts. See Figure 1 for the answers. For younger students, you may want to list the parts nearby from which they can choose.) 

Engineers start with designing and testing several different models of an airplane before they get the approval to build a real one. They typically must work under specific constraints or limits, including the purpose of the airplane. By testing different models of planes, engineers can determine which one is best for distance, speed and other factors.

Today, we are going to learn how to design some simple gliders and airplanes using paper. The class is going to design and build a few different models and determine which paper airplane is the best for distance.

A drawing of an airplane with labeled parts: propeller, spinner, wing, cockpit, elevator, rudder, tail, flap, aileron, fuselage, and engine.

Before the Activity

With the Students

Pre-Activity Assessment

Brainstorming:  Before starting the activity, have students generate a number of possible ideas about the activity topic. Encourage wild ideas and discourage criticism of any ideas. Ask:

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheet: Have students record on the  Flight Distances Worksheet  their flight distances and times for both plane designs. Review their data to assess their engagement and comprehension of the experimental testing process.

Post-Activity Assessment

Class Discussion: Ask students to list factors that they noticed affected their airplane model test flights. Record their answers on the board. Ask how they would change their designs if they had more time to work on them. Have them list some of the variables that affect flight (such as the weight of the plane's parts, wing shape, wing length, rudders, ailerons, plane length, etc.)

Pass the Buck:  In groups of four, have students brainstorm ideas to design the perfect paper airplane. First, assign one student in the group to be the recorder. Then have someone toss out an idea. Next, another person in the group provides an idea that builds on the first. Go around the group in this fashion until all students have put in enough ideas to put together a design. When they are done, have them share their ideas with the class.

Safety Issues

Provide a clear path for the airplanes to be thrown so that people are not be in the path of the paper airplanes.

Clarify to students when and where to fly the airplanes. Ideally, conduct the activity in a hallway, gym or outdoors. You may want to show them how to fold some of the trickier paper airplanes as a group before you let them try on their own.

If some students have dificulty folding the paper airplanes, ask other students who have mastered the process to help them.

Expect that some students already have experience with paper airplanes. Let them know that they will get a chance to demonstrate their favorite airplane design in a later lesson, but the purpose of this activity is to get some basic folding shapes down for the entire class. Or, ask them to do one of the provided patterns for their first trials and their own designs for the second trial. Then, have the students explain what changes were made to improve the plane for the second trial.

For extra math practice, have students create a line or bar graph of their individual plane trials.

Have students complete other challenges with their paper airplanes. Set up a mock landing pad, a target or a hoop to measure plane flight accuracy.

A company called Whitewings makes all sorts of kits for very cool paper airplanes; see .

A helpful NASA diagram shows the basic ariplane parts and their functions; see

Paper Aircraft Association. Accessed 2004.


Supporting program, acknowledgements.

The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: December 9, 2022

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On the eleventh day of Christmas —

Experiments with paper airplanes reveal surprisingly complex aerodynamics, how these gliders keep level flight is different from the stability of airplanes..

Jennifer Ouellette - Jan 4, 2023 10:06 pm UTC

Experiments with paper airplanes revealed new aerodynamic effects that enhance our current understanding of flight stability.

Drop a flat piece of paper and it will flutter and tumble through the air as it falls, but a well-fashioned paper airplane will glide smoothly. Although these structures look simple, their aerodynamics are surprisingly complex. Researchers at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences conducted a series of experiments involving paper airplanes to explore this transition and develop a mathematical model to predict flight stability, according to a March paper published in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics.

“The study started with simple curiosity about what makes a good paper airplane and specifically what is needed for smooth gliding," said co-author Leif Ristroph . "Answering such basic questions ended up being far from child’s play. We discovered that the aerodynamics of how paper airplanes keep level flight is really very different from the stability of conventional airplanes.”

Nobody knows who invented the first paper airplane, but China began making paper on a large scale around 500 BCE, with the emergence of origami and paper-folding as a popular art form between 460 and 390 BCE. Paper airplanes have long been studied as a means of learning more about the aerodynamics of flight. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci famously built a model plane out of parchment while dreaming up flying machines and used paper models to test his design for an ornithopter. In the 19th century, British engineer and inventor Sir George Cayley —sometimes called the "father of aviation"—studied the gliding performance of paper airplanes to design a glider capable of carrying a human.

An amusing "scientist playing with paper planes" anecdote comes from physicist Theodore von Kármán . In his 1967 memoir The Wind and Beyond , he recalled a formal 1924 banquet in Delft, The Netherlands, where fellow physicist Ludwig Prandtl constructed a paper airplane out of a menu to demonstrate the mechanics of flight to von Kármán's sister, who was seated next to him. When he threw the paper plane, "It landed on the shirtfront of the French minister of education, much to the embarrassment of my sister and others at the banquet," von Kármán wrote.

Flight motions of paper airplanes with different center of mass locations.

While scientists have clearly made great strides in aerodynamics—particularly about aircraft—Ristroph et al . noted that there was not a good mathematical model for predicting the simpler, subtler gliding flight of paper airplanes. It was already well-known that displacing the center of mass results in various flight trajectories, some more stable than others. “The key criterion of a successful glider is that the center of mass must be in the ‘just right’ place,” said Ristroph . “Good paper airplanes achieve this with the front edge folded over several times or by an added paper clip, which requires a little trial and error.”

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Channel Ars Technica

For New Insights into Aerodynamics, Scientists Turn to Paper Airplanes

A series of experiments using paper airplanes reveals new aerodynamic effects--findings that enhance our understanding of flight stability.

Findings Unveil Mechanisms that Explain Flight Stability

A series of experiments using paper airplanes reveals new aerodynamic effects, a team of scientists has discovered. Its findings enhance our understanding of flight stability and could inspire new types of flying robots and small drones.

“The study started with simple curiosity about what makes a good paper airplane and specifically what is needed for smooth gliding,” explains Leif Ristroph, an associate professor at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and an author of the study , which appears in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics . “Answering such basic questions ended up being far from child’s play. We discovered that the aerodynamics of how paper airplanes keep level flight is really very different from the stability of conventional airplanes.”

“Birds glide and soar in an effortless way, and paper airplanes, when tuned properly, can also glide for long distances,” adds author Jane Wang, a professor of engineering and physics at Cornell University. “Surprisingly, there has been no good mathematical model for predicting this seemingly simple but subtle gliding flight.”

Since we can make complicated modern airplanes fly, the researchers say, one might think we know all there is to know about the simplest flying machines. 

“But paper airplanes, while simple to make, involve surprisingly complex aerodynamics,” notes Ristroph.

The paper’s authors began their study by considering what is needed for a plane to glide smoothly. Since paper airplanes have no engine and rely on gravity and proper design for their movement, they are good candidates for exploring factors behind flight stability.

To investigate this phenomenon, the researchers conducted lab experiments by launching paper airplanes with differing centers of mass through the air. The results, along with those from studying plates falling in a water tank, allowed the team to devise a new aerodynamic model and also a “flight simulator” capable of predicting the motions.

A video and image showing the experimental results may be downloaded from Google Drive .

To find the best design, the researchers placed different amounts of thin copper tape on the front part of the paper planes, giving them varied center of mass locations. Lead weights added to the plates in water served the same purpose.

“The key criterion of a successful glider is that the center of mass must be in the ‘just right’ place,” Ristroph explains. “Good paper airplanes achieve this with the front edge folded over several times or by an added paper clip, which requires a little trial and error.”

In the experiments, the researchers found that the flight motions depended sensitively on the center of mass location. Specifically, if the weight was at the center of the wing or only displaced somewhat from the middle, it underwent wild motions, such as fluttering or tumbling. If the weight was displaced too far toward one edge, then the flier quickly dove downwards and crashed. In between, however, there was a “sweet spot” for the center of mass that gave stable gliding.

The researchers coupled the experimental work with a mathematical model that served as the basis of a “flight simulator,” a computer program that successfully reproduced the different flight motions. It also helped explain why a paper airplane is stable in its glide. When the center of mass is in the “sweet spot,” the aerodynamic force on the plane’s wing pushes the wing back down if the plane moves upward and back up if it moves downward.

“The location of the aerodynamic force or center of pressure varies with the angle of flight in such a way to ensure stability,” explains Ristroph. 

He notes that this dynamic does not occur with conventional aircraft wings, which are airfoils—structures whose shapes work to generate lift. 

“The effect we found in paper airplanes does not happen for the traditional airfoils used as aircraft wings, whose center of pressure stays fixed in place across the angles that occur in flight,” Ristroph says. “The shifting of the center of pressure thus seems to be a unique property of thin, flat wings, and this ends up being the secret to the stable flight of paper airplanes.”

“This is why airplanes need a separate tail wing as a stabilizer while a paper plane can get away with just a main wing that gives both lift and stability,” he concludes. “We hope that our findings will be useful in small-scale flight applications, where you may want a minimal design that does not require a lot of extra flight surfaces, sensors, and controllers.”

The paper’s other authors were Huilin Li, a doctoral candidate at NYU Shanghai, and Tristan Goodwill, a doctoral candidate at the Courant Institute’s Department of Mathematics.

The work was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (DMS-1847955, DMS-1646339).

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