Lesson: Take Off with Paper Airplanes

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

A paper airplane.
Students make paper airplanes
Copyright © A basic paper airplane.


This lesson introduces students to the art of designing an airplane through paper airplane constructions. The goal is that students will learn important aircraft design considerations and how engineers must iterate their designs to achieve success. Students first follow several basic paper airplane models, after which they will then design their own paper airplane. They will also learn how engineers make models to test ideas and designs.

Engineering Connection

The process of iterative design helps an engineer learn from the mistakes of early designs. When designing an airplane, engineers often build small-scale models of the airplane to test how it will fly without building a large and expensive full-size aircraft. And, they experiment with many different designs to find the best one.

Educational Standards

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Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Design at least two different paper airplanes.
  • Modify one of their designed airplanes in an attempt to improve its flight.
  • Become familiar with parts of a paper airplane and how they relate to parts on a real airplane.


How many of you have ever made a paper airplane? How many of you have tried with a friend to see whose airplane will go the farthest or the highest? Did you know that engineers make models of things like airplanes to test their ideas in a laboratory setting before they build the real thing? Building a model allows ideas to be tested using less expensive materials before the "real thing" is built out of its final — and likely more expensive — material. Engineers run airplane models through thousands of tests before building the real thing.

Have you made an airplane, only to have it make an immediate nosedive into the ground? Many factors affect the flight of an airplane. What factors can you think of that affect its flight? (Answer: There are things like rudders, a streamlined design, weight, ailerons [the flaps on the main wings], elevators on the rear ends of the back wings, etc. that can affect the length of the flight, steering, and distance of the flight.) Engineers consider all of these factors when deigning airplanes for speed, distance and cargo. In this lesson, students will become aerospace engineers by testing and refining different models of paper airplanes.

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers


Paper airplanes can be traced back to China, approximately 2,000 years ago, when the Chinese invented kites. Japanese origami, which dates to the 12th century, developed the art form of folding paper into a myriad of shapes and models. The word origami comes from the Japanese words "oru," to fold, and "kami," paper. In the late 1700s, hot air balloons were built partly out of paper.

Nowadays, paper airplane construction is a popular hobby. There are many ways to build airplanes. Traditionalists use only a sheet of paper while others cut, tape, or paste their airplanes together. The Guinness Book of World Records even has multiple paper airplane categories including flight duration, distance and wingspan. The record for distance with a paper airplane is 193 ft., set in 1985. The record for duration of flight is 27.6 seconds, set in 1998. The largest wingspan on a plane that flew is 40 ft. 10 in.

How Do Paper Airplanes Fly?

Usually paper airplanes are gliders. The basic shape of a paper airplane includes wings and a body. The wings allow the plane to "sit" on the air. The wings compress the air molecules underneath them, creating higher pressure than the air above the wings. The air above the wings then has lower pressure. The wings then "rest" on the higher air pressure. Figure 1 illustrates the different parts of an airplane.

 An illustration of an airplane with labeled parts, including: the propeller, spinner, wing, cockpit, elevator, rudder, tail, flap, aileron, fuselage, and the engine.
Figure 1. The Parts of an Airplane
Copyright © http://whyfiles.larc.nasa.gov/text/kids/Problem_Board/problems/flight/parts2.html

Adding features like rudders, tails, ailerons, or flaps can change the flight direction or performance. A flap can turn the airplane while a heavy nose can cause the plane to nosedive. A sturdy body helps control the airplane and a rudder helps stabilize the plane.


aerodynamics: The study of the affects of bodies moving relative to gases, especially the interaction of moving objects with the atmosphere.

aileron: Either of two movable flaps on the wings of an airplane that can be used to control the plane's rolling and banking movements.

drag: The retarding (slowing down) force exerted on a moving body by a fluid medium such as air or water.

elevators: A movable control surface, usually attached to the horizontal stabilizer of an aircraft that is used to produce nose-up or nose-down motion (pitch).

glider: A light engineless aircraft designed to glide after being towed aloft or launched from a high location such as a building or mountain.

launch: To set or thrust a craft or projectile into motion.

lift: Force available for overcoming the force of gravity.

nose: The nose of an aircraft is the structure at the very front of the aircraft that is shaped in such a way as to reduce drag. The nose is usually shaped like a cone or a dome.

rudder: A vertically hinged plate of metal, fiberglass, or wood mounted at the tail of an aircraft, used for effecting horizontal changes in course.

stability: Stability is the ability of an object, such as a ship or aircraft, to maintain equilibrium or resume its original, upright position after being displaced from its original course.

streamlined: Designed or arranged to offer the least resistance to airflow.

thrust: The forward-directed force developed in a propeller, jet, or rocket engine as a reaction to the high-velocity rearward ejection of air or exhaust gases.

weight: A measure of the heaviness of an object.

Associated Activities

  • Heads Up - This activity focuses on how to fold different types of paper airplanes. It is an introduction to subsequent lessons which will look at modifications to a simple paper airplane design.

Lesson Closure

Ask the students to think about qualities that made their airplanes fly well (e.g., shape, rudders, wing span, etc.). Discuss what they learned about trial and error. Remind them that engineers rely on trial and error in their designs. Tell them the next lesson will help them focus on changing the variables on one type of paper airplane.


Pre-Lesson Assessment

Discussion Questions: Solicit, integrate, and summarize student responses

  • How many of you have ever made a paper airplane?
  • How many of you have tried with a friend to see whose airplane will go the farthest or the highest? What did you do to accomplish this?

Post-Introduction Assessment

Voting: Ask a true/false question, and have students vote by holding thumbs up for true and thumbs down for false. Count the number of true and false and write the number on the board. Give the right answer.

  • True/False: Design, weight and rudders are all things that can affect paper airplane flight. (True)
  • True/False: Engineers consider the purpose (cargo, speed, distance) of the airplane before designing it. (True)
  • True/False: Engineers make models of things like airplanes to test their ideas in a laboratory setting before they build the real thing? (True)
  • True/False: When an engineer designs and builds something, it usually works the first time and they are done? (False: Engineers almost always have to redesign something several times before it is finished.)

Lesson Summary Assessment

Human Matching: On separate pieces of paper, write both the terms and the definitions of several of the vocabulary words for this lesson. Ask for volunteers from the audience to come up to the front of the room, and give each person one of the pieces of paper. Have all volunteers read what is written on their papers one at a time. Have the audience match term to definition by voting. Have student "terms" stand by their "definitions." At the end, give a brief explanation of concepts.

Lesson Extension Activities

There are many websites dedicated to paper airplanes and design. Students might like to continue to experiment with paper airplane design on their own or as part of another class. Encourage students to check out the Paper Aircraft Association webpage: http://www.topphotograph.dsl.pipex.com/paamain/index.html

Classes can have a paper airplane contest for longest flight and longest duration. See if you can utilize the gym or an outside space. Define a starting line for launching and clearly marked distance lines for measuring flight length.

Another great resource for students interested in paper airplane design is the Whitewings webpage at http://www.whitewings.com/. Whitewings are balsa or paper airplane kits that you can find rather inexpensively (about $5 for one or $20 for a kit containing 8 balsa gliders) at some hobby stores or you can order them online (a list of stores from which to purchase is available at the whitewings.com website). The website also gives tips for tuning and piloting the planes.


Schmidt, Norman. Super Paper Airplanes, Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 1996.
Shulan, Michael. The Complete Paper Airplane Book, Watermill Press, 1979.
Paper Aircraft Association:http://www.topphotograph.dsl.pipex.com/paamain/index.html


Tom Rutkowski; Alex Conner; Geoffrey Hill; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Janet Yowell


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant 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.