When the term ‘paper airplane’ is tossed around, an image is often conjured up of children playing in a schoolyard or in the backyard of their home, taking sheets of paper from their school books and folding them into the shapes of airplanes and seeing how far they can get them to fly, or how long they can get them airborne. It has been almost a rite of passage for many young boys to be able to make paper airplanes that can stay in the air and fly longer and farther than all of their friends’ paper airplanes.
Yet there is actually a great deal of science that goes into paper airplane making and there are engineers around the world who continually experiment with paper airplanes, trying to get them to fly farther, faster, and better than ever before. Some of these technological, yet simplistic, innovations also help other engineers design better aircrafts, more aerodynamic machines, and even to create the potential for new styles of flying devices.
It can be argued that the first paper airplane was flown at Kitty Hawk in 1904 by the Wright brothers. That first actual airplane flight was built on the construction of basic, yet strong, paper wings. While the rest of that airplane was built out of wood and some bolts and screws, it was the wings that defined it and made it work because of the lightweight material. That initial flight began an era of aviation that continues to bloom to this day.
It is important to note however, that paper airplanes have actually been around for thousands of years. In fact, the origin of the paper airplane can be traced back to around 500 B.C. in China, where this culture began making paper and creating artistic structures called origami.
Paper airplane making and flying is so popular in some cultures that there are competitions for the most aerodynamic, most intricate, and best flying paper airplanes. Adults can even spend countless hours designing their paper airplanes to achieve the right amount of lift and loft that will help it fly farther than ever before. The reason that paper airplanes are important to modern aviation has to do with aerodynamics at its core.
If a paper airplane design can sustain loft and duration farther than any paper airplane previous, its design could give clues to how modern aircrafts can take advantage of those principles in order to save on fuel efficiency as well as reach a maximum speed.
Paper airplanes are actually based on the ancient Japanese art form known as origami and utilizes the method of folding paper along certain lines and angles to create the paper airplane. Different fold angles, cuts, and additions for the most basic paper airplanes can change their trajectory as well as their loft and elevation. More complex paper airplanes that are engineered are actually built with a number of strong sheets of paper, glue, and other components that keep it together.
For most average hobbyists, however, paper airplane making and flying comes down to being able to take one single sheet of paper and create an airborne flying device.
Basics of Making a Paper Airplane
When first starting out making paper airplanes as a hobby, it’s best to start out slow, and not try to overreach and create the world’s fastest and most aerodynamic paper airplane that’s ever been created. If you ever made paper airplanes as a young child, then that would be a great starting point to get back into the rhythm of making paper airplanes.
If, on the other hand, you have never made a paper airplane in your life, then you need to begin with the very basics. A basic paper airplane is generally constructed out of a single, uncut sheet of paper. Regular note pad paper of the traditional eight-by-eleven inch size (US) or A4 (Eurpoean) size is ideal. In the future, as you begin to become more comfortable with making your own paper airplanes, then you will be able to start cutting your original size down to create the perfect plane that you have in mind, or have designed.
The basic steps to constructing a paper airplane are as follows:
1. Fold the sheet of paper in half.
2. Unfold and, using the crease down the center as a guide, fold in a ninety-degree angle on the front of the paper. The top portion of the paper (the narrow end) should meet and align with the crease.
3. Repeat step two for the other side. Now you have a ‘fuselage’ and ‘nose’ of the paper airplane.
4. Fold the paper in half along the previously created crease.
5. Now fold down about one to two inches worth of paper from the upper edge of what would be the wing section. This forms your wing.
6. Repeat step 5 and you have completed your first paper airplane.
When you begin to see how the paper airplane flies, you will be able to experiment with different construction principles to try and get the paper airplane to do different things, such as float for a long period of time, do loops and twists along the air currents, and much more.
As an example, take the paper airplane that you just created and fold the wings down at a different angle. In other words, rather than having the wings set at a parallel line to the fuselage, make them angle upward or downward and you will see that the paper airplane’s path will be drastically altered.
The longer your paper airplane is, and if the thickness of the paper doesn’t change, then you may notice that the entire structure will be influenced by a breeze or changes in the air’s natural currents. This can cause fluctuations in the flight path or pattern and you can also experiment with these nuances as well.
Making your own paper airplanes can be an interesting experiment in trying to recreate the same results at different times. It is unlikely that every single paper airplane you create will be exactly the same, unless you take painstaking effort to make sure that they are. When you first set out to make your own paper airplane, make it fun. If you have children, this can be a great activity to do with them while teaching them the fundamentals of aerodynamics and engineering while learning about them yourself.
If you consider yourself more of an advanced paper airplane designer, then perhaps it’s time for you to being developing your designs before sitting down with the paper and folding and cutting your shapes into existence. There are a number of computer programs that can be used to lay out the design of your paper airplane. Programs such as CAD designers can offer an opportunity to work with aerodynamics and move beyond the basic structure of the origami style paper airplanes.
The concept of basic paper airplanes, such as those designed on the origami model, have major aerodynamic flaws that are inherent in their design. These types of paper airplanes create a number of drag problems, along with the aforementioned susceptibility to wind and current changes.
Also, many modern scientists are using other products to build their paper airplanes, such as balsa wood and glue to hold everything together. Though paper of a thicker weight, is generally stronger per square inch than balsa wood. When building a paper airplane in more advanced fashion, you will not be limited to the basic forms and structures. If you are interested in the more advanced form of paper airplane design, then there are just about as many different books and programs to choose from as there are paper airplane designs. You will simply need to go through them and figure out which one makes sense to you and which ones are the most practical for your efforts.
The traditional model of paper airplanes based on origami have one major design flaw, besides the paper that it is constructed out of. The most glaring, when compares with actual airplane designs of modern flight, has to do with the weight displacement throughout the aircraft itself. With paper airplanes, the weight is distributed evenly throughout the design.
Aerodynamics predicates that certain regions and sections of an aircraft carry more weight than others in other to allow it to fly, fly smoothly, and stay airborne longer. In modern aircrafts, though, there is propulsion that is taken into account and therefore the wings tend to be farther back on the aircraft, which is why, when there is engine failure, the plane tends to dip down nose first.
With advanced paper airplane design, the most important factor to consider is about where the weight should be placed for maximum efficiency of form and function. You may find that wings toward the front of the plane with a majority of the weight may be the answer to keep it aloft longer. Or you may discover that a plane with narrower wings might create a more resilient flying craft.
Studying basic aerodynamics can go a long way toward designing and building paper airplanes that defy tradition. Who knows, you could end of creating the perfect flying machine right there in your own work station.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are there paper airplane flying competitions? If so, where?
Yes. There are a number of paper airplane flying competitions around the world, often sponsored and promoted by engineering departments in universities or companies that invest in aviation engineering. To find them, go online and search ‘paper airplane competitions’ using any of the major search engines and you will likely find a list of organizations that sponsor this exciting and rewarding hobby.
How many more ways can a paper airplane be made? I mean, it still must follow the basic design, right?
That all depends. The most common paper airplanes have the same basic shape and structure, but that doesn’t mean that all of them have to follow that model. Most people recognize planes as having wings, but there have been designs that have worked well with a different form of elevational thrust. The key is to use one’s imagination and experiment. Who knows, the next ‘out of the box’ design that changes the world of aviation could be from you.
What do I need to start paper airplane flying?
Your imagination and some paper. You can pick up tips online for designs, or buy a book on how to make the best paper airplanes. Once you have the basics down, you can move from there and design your own paper airplanes and see what you can discover about them.
Paper airplanes are often thought of as being for children, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, paper airplane flying is taken quite seriously by a number of engineers around the world who strive to improve and advance aviation globally. What makes paper airplanes so important to modern aviation is its susceptibility to wind and currents, which can teach a lot about how a particular design can take advantage of those currents.
Yet even as a hobby, paper airplanes can be a great way to spend time with friends or family, learning about the different types of paper airplanes and how to improve on existing designs. For fathers and sons, making paper airplanes together can be a wonderful way to bond, spend time together, and help the child learn to think through a problem, design a solution, and set about creating the paper airplane from a blank sheet of paper.
When we think about paper airplanes, we are often directed to the notion of boys playing on the schoolyard tossing their ragged, ill-conceived and basic paper airplanes into the wind and watching them either float elegantly in the air or crash hard onto the ground. But there is an opportunity for adults to recapture some of those carefree days of youth by learning to build paper airplanes and seeing just what they can come up with today.