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Thursday, May 26 is National Paper Airplane Day! Held each year on May 26, the commemoration of one of childhood’s most iconic hobbies encourages children and adults alike to step into their creative sides to take part in the activity of creating and flying—and sometimes competing with!—paper airplanes. Read on to learn more about why paper airplanes are cool, how real airplanes fly, and what you need to crush it in your next paper airplane competition.
A paper airplane is a toy aircraft, usually a glider made out of paper or paperboard. The practice of constructing paper planes is sometimes referred to as “aerogami,” after origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. Whether we consider it this way or not, a lot of engineering and design goes into the development of a successful paper airplane.
And while we celebrate all that technology brings into our lives—which includes the ability to develop safer, more efficient aircraft—we also enjoy taking the time to unplug from our electronic devices whenever possible. It doesn’t take technology to build a paper airplane, so grab your crafting materials (see below), get outside, and get some fresh air!
Additionally, unlike building real airplanes, all you need to create a paper airplane is a single sheet of paper—and if you grab an average office ream of paper, you’ll have enough material to make a fleet of 500 planes or more!
According to Ed Regis at Scientific American (2020), although engineers know how to design planes that will stay aloft from strictly a mathematical perspective, equations themselves don't explain why aerodynamic lift occurs—and thus how planes can fly.
There are two competing, yet complementary theories that describe the forces and factors of lift: Daniel Bernoulli’s law, which says that the pressure of a fluid decreases as its velocity increases and vice versa, and a theory of lift based on Newton’s third law of motion, the principle of action and reaction. Air has mass, and from Newton’s third law it follows that the wing’s downward push results in an equal and opposite push back upward, which is lift.
While there is overwhelming evidence that Bernoulli’s law is correct and true, neither theory on its own constitutes a complete explanation of lift. For example, Bernoulli’s law doesn’t allow for planes to fly upside down based on the shapes of their airfoils, and paper airplanes generate lift even though they have flat wings. Aerodynamicists have recently tried to close the gaps in understanding, yet no consensus exists.
Based on what we do know, we describe the phenomenon of flight as a relationship between the four forces acting on the aircraft: lift, thrust, weight, and drag.
Lift, which normally moves the airplane upward, is generated by the forward motion of the airplane through the air. This forward motion is produced by the thrust of the engine(s). Drag is the force produced by the resistance of the air to the forward motion of the airplane, and weight is the force created by the pull of gravity on the aircraft toward the center of the earth.
When the thrust produced by the engine(s) is greater than the force of drag, the airplane moves forward. When the forward motion is enough to produce a force of lift that is greater than the weight, the airplane moves upward.
The best part of participating in National Paper Airplane Day is that crafting the paper airplane is very simple, and you don’t need to understand the finer points of aerodynamics to have a good time! However, whether you participate in casual, backyard plane-flying or more intense group competitions, having a few models to choose from and compare makes it way more fun! Check out these different planes we’ve tried (complete with step-by-step instructions!):
In this video, you learn how to fold the farthest flying paper airplane, called Suzanne. The plane, which was designed by John Collins, requires only an A4 sheet of printer paper.
At this website, you’re taught three levels of airplane-making: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Try all three and see if you can get your advanced-level plane to fly the farthest!
Check out The Coolist, which offers over 15 different paper airplane designs!
At this page on instructables.com, simple step-by-step instructions help you design what the author deems their most successful plane ever.
Tips for creating the highest-performing plane possible:
Choose a design that has a lot of weight in the nose
Fold sharp creases
Make sure the wings are symmetrical
To create more stability, angle your wings slightly up
Try experimenting with different tail designs