The science of flight: Paper airplanes

Paper airplanes are models of real (or imaginary) aircraft that are made from paper. Some people call it aerogami, since it is somewhat similar to the traditional Japanese craft of folding paper. Making paper airplanes is a lot of fun. They are sometimes made simply for fun or to engage in a competition with other paper planes. Studying a paper airplane can also teach us a lot about how real planes stay in the air. Let’s find out more and then learn how to make a paper airplane!

History of the Paper Airplane

There is some evidence of paper kites and gliders that originated in Ancient China and Japan. In Europe, it was only during the Renaissance period onwards that inventors attempted to create paper models of a machine that could fly. The Wright brothers were the ones who invented airplanes, and they did this by testing out miniature paper models! Toy paper planes only became popular much later, during WWII. Since all materials and supplies were rationed, children made or received airplanes made from paper instead of metal, wood or plastic!


As with real airplanes there are four main forces, called aerodynamic forces, that enable a paper plane to stay in the air. The first one, when you throw the plane forward, is called thrustLift is a force that acts on the wings and helps the plane to move up. Big wings increase lift. Gravity is the force that pulls the plane down. The right materials can create a lighter aircraft that stays up longer. Finally, drag (caused by the tail) is the opposite of thrust and it makes the plane slow down. There are other factors that influence how well a paper airplane flies. The type of paper used can affect its weight and the amount of friction that exists. How the plane is designed can also vary tremendously. The design of the wings, body, nose and tail can all drastically change the way the plane flies. It is a fun experiment to try several variations to see which design achieves the best flight.

Fun Facts About Paper Airplanes

There are many fascinating things to know about paper airplanes. Did you know that the largest paper aircraft ever made had a wing span of nearly 60 feet? Do you think you can make one that is larger and can still fly? The longest that a paper airplane has ever stayed up in the air was 29.2 seconds. Try a few tests with your own paper airplane and record the time. How long does it stay up? Although researchers believe that the Ancient Chinese made some form of paper gliders, the first real recorded paper plane originated in 1909.

Paper Airplane Sites

The first step to making a paper airplane is to decide on which model you want to make. You can find instructions for all sorts of paper airplanes online, from fighter jets to gliders, and even a standard passenger airplane! For a very basic version, you would need a rectangular sheet of paper, a pair of scissors, and coloring pencils or stickers to add decorations. Most basic paper airplanes don’t require any cutting and only require a few simple folds. More advanced models do need a bit more work and extra folds. Try starting out with some basic tutorials and then try the advanced ones. Along the way, try inventing your own designs and see how they compare!

(Featured image: Pen Waggener)