Can You Fly a Paper Airplane With No Wings?

If you've ever made your own paper airplanes, you know there are lots of designs that fly. Engineers who design airplanes are sometimes surprised by the types of designs and shapes that fly, too. This activity will show you how to make a uniquely shaped glider. 

Age: 6-12 years
Time: 10-30 minutes
Topics: Flight, Gliders, Airplanes

What You Need:

  • One (or more) pieces of sturdy paper like construction paper, cardstock, or a thin folder
  • One (or more) paper or plastic straws
  • Scissors
  • Tape

What To Do:

1. First, throw the straw by itself like a dart. Make some observations about how it flies or glides or falls. Did it go straight? How far did it go?

2. Cut two strips of paper, each 1 inch wide, one about 10 inches long, the other about 5 inches long.

3. Curl each strip into a circle and tape the ends together. Now you should have a small hoop and a bigger hoop.

4. Tape the small hoop to one end of the staw and the large hoop to the other end of the straw. Make sure the hoops are in line with each other.

5. Hold your glider in the middle with the small hoop in the front. Gently throw your glider like a dart. This may take a few practice throws.

6. What did you notice about how it flies? Does it fall slower or faster than you expected? How did it compare to when you threw the straw by itself? What happens if you throw it with the large hoop in the front?

7. Next, experiment by making changes to your design. Some ideas to try:

  • make the hoops bigger, smaller, or both the same size
  • add more hoops
  • cut your straw to make it shorter
  • tape two straws together to make them longer
  • put one hoop on top of the straw and the other hoop underneath.

8. How does each change affect how smoothly the glider flies, or how long it stays in the air? How else could you change the design?

 

What's Happening:

Your hoop glider glides because of the four forces of flight: 

  • Thrust: the force you exert when you throw your glider.
  • Drag: also called air resistance. The more surface there is, the harder it is to move the glider through the air.
  • Gravity: the force that pulls your glider down toward Earth.
  • Lift: the force that helps your glider stay up in the air. The curved surface of your glider's hoops creates lower air pressure under the hoops which pushes your glider up, against the force of gravity.

Another important element of your hoop glider is balance. Having two hoops in the same direction makes the glider more stable. The larger hoop catches the air and keeps the glider from falling as quickly.