How To Make a Paper Airplane That Flies Far, Fast or Longer | Physics of Glider Flight – Dart vs Glider Plane

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How To Make a Paper Airplane That Flies Far, Fast or Longer | Physics of Glider Flight | Dart Airplane vs Glider Plane

  • Physics of Paper Airplane Flight
  • How Long Can You Fly a Glider?
  • What You Must Know – Lifting Mechanisms
  • How To Make a Paper Plane That Flies 100 Metres?
  • How To Make a Paper Plane That Flies the Longest Time
  • Paper Airplane Competitions


Suzanne World Record Dart Paper Airplane by John Collins (2) 1030×1373

If you have never tried to build a fantasy flying aircraft or make a paper airplane for that matter when you were growing up, then you  were never an adventurous kid. You missed out a lot. But a paper plane is something that most of us (especially boys) have made or tried to make when we were elementary school kids. Making paper planes is a fun craft hobby not just for kids but for adults as well. The common appeal about paper airplanes as a craft or backyard entertainment is that just about anyone can make a paper plane. You don’t need special skills nor materials to make a flying paper airplane. All you need is a sheet of printing paper (size A5 or A4) and a list of paper folding instructions to make an airplane. Illustrated step-by-step instructions with diagrams to guide you along the way are recommended for learners because visual learning is a much more clearer and faster learning technique than verbal/text-based instructions. In this case, verbal/written instructions should be complemented with sketch/photo diagrams and even much better videos.

So how do you make a really good paper airplane? Some hobbyists may be looking to make a simple airplane to play around with, others will be interested in challenging projects such as making a fast plane that flies the farthest in a straight line. Can you imagine, there are people out there looking to make a paper plane that flies 10,000 feet (3.05 kilometres), but can a paper aeroplane even fly a distance of 100 metres? Before we address these questions, let’s look at the physics of flight for paper aeroplanes as well as real planes.


Physics of Paper Airplane Flight

The difference between a paper plane and real aircraft is that a paper airplane has no engine to push it forward (thrust). In this case, the paper airplane can be treated and understood as a glider or projectile launched at a suitable angle and speed with a certain force (e.g. throwing or catapult force). According to the basic physics theory of projectiles using Newtonian laws of motion, a projectile is defined as an object in flight only affected by the force of gravity, propelling itself through the air with its own inertia once launched, and encountering little to no resistance from the air during the flight.  As you can see, this is a basic hypothesis that doesn’t take into account all the forces acting on a projectile in realistic conditions. In actual conditions, a projectile or object in flight encounters much more than gravity. It is affected by air resistance, with forces such as lift, drag and gravity (weight) acting on a glider. Unlike a powered aircraft (jet, propeller plane or rocket), a glider has no engine to propel it forward, relying on the launch force (initial thrust) and the balance between the lift, drag and weight to keep it afloat and moving. Lift is the vertical upward force acting on the glider created by high pressure airflow under the wings. Gravity is the weight or force pulling the glider vertically downwards, and drag is the air resistance opposing the motion of the glider.

There are many types of gliders out there, including powered/motorised gliders such as the ultralight or microlight (e.g. an ultralight trike, which is manoeuvred by shifting your weight and driven by a push propeller). The traditional glider as you know it, is none other than the hang glider, which is a non-powered engineless glider whereby the pilot strapped under the aircraft makes use of bodyweight shift to control the direction of the glider.

How Long Can You Fly a Glider?

How long does a glider stay afloat in the air? Since a powered aircraft needs to generate thrust through its engines to produce lift and keep going, a non-powered glider also needs to generate some kind of thrust (speed) to keep it moving and afloat. In a non-motorized engineless glider (such as a hang glider), the speed or thrust is produced by shifting one’s weight relative to the aircraft. A downward deep executed by moving your weight forward produces lift by acceleration, while side shifts change the direction between the left and right turn. Moving your weight backwards tilts the glider nose up, and thus decelerating or slowing down the aircraft. As you can see, acceleration (increase in speed) is responsible for producing thrust and lift. In a traditional non-powered hang glider, this thrust is mechanically produced via bodyweight shifting.

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In powered gliders also known as motor gliders, acceleration and thrust is produced by electric motors or propellers fitted on the aircraft.

Acceleration and thrust is one way of generating lift in a glider, but a glider can also gain lift by taking advantage of altitude. The glide ratio measures the horizontal distance that can be travelled by a glider with respect to the takeoff or drop altitude. The equation for the glide ratio is R = D/A, where D is the horizontal distance travelled, and A is the change in altitude.

Re-arranging the formula:  D=A*R

It can be seen that the horizontal distance travelled is directly proportional to the change in altitude, therefore the higher the altitude at which the glider is dropped, the longer the horizontal distance travelled.

As long as lift is generated, a glider will stay afloat in the air for as long as possible. However, to remain in the air for a much longer time than normal, you cannot solely rely on propellers or mechanical thrust alone. You will need the aid of weather conditions to achieve record flight times and altitudes. Meteorological conditions which result in rising air or uplifts are very effective in sustaining the flight or buoyancy of a glider for a much longer time. In meteorology, rising air is crucial in the formation of clouds and rainfall. Clouds are formed when warm humid air (water vapour) rises up to the sky. As you know, air is composed of gaseous elements such as Oxygen, Nitrogen, Argon, Carbon dioxide and minute amounts of water vapour, hydrogen, helium, neon and other elements. However, atmospheric air is not pure. It is polluted with millions of tiny particles (both microscopic and macroscopic) known as particulate matter – dust, smoke, soot, salts and dirt suspended in the air. These tiny solid particles are critical in the formation of clouds in that they provide a solid surface on which water vapour can condense (i.e. change from vapour to liquid state).

As warm humid atmospheric air rises to the sky, it expands then cools. The higher the column of air rises to the sky, it experiences a temperature drop, becoming more cooler. The cooling process reduces the saturation threshold of the rising air, so its relative humidity (RH) will increase. Further humidification will lead to the saturation point (100% RH), and eventually supersaturation (>100% RH). At this point, the water vapour will begin to condense, changing into tiny water droplets (mist or fog) which form clouds. Clouds are the same as mist. The relative humidity at which condensation occurs depends on the amount of particulate matter in the atmospheric air. The lower the amount of particles in the air, the higher the supersaturation relative humidity required for condensation to take place. Therefore, reasonably dirty/polluted air produces condensation (cloud droplets) at a much lower RH than pure/clean air.

What You Must Know – Lifting Mechanisms

There are five ways in which warm air can rise to the sky, leading to the formation of clouds and/or rainfall. These are called Lifting Mechanisms in meteorology. However, since we are not interested in cloud formation or rainfall in this article, we will look at how these weather lifting mechanisms can help you glide in the air for a much longer time without propellers or use of mechanical thrust.

Orographic Lift – Also known as topographic lift, winds or airstreams travelling in the horizontal plane are forced to rise up the slope of a mountain or hill. On the leeward side of the mountain, the descending air will create stationery or turbulent waves known as mountain waves which get trapped, creating strong vertical currents (updrafts or downdrafts) and/or severe turbulence.

Frontal Lift – A weather front is the line or zone where two different air masses meet, resulting in one air mass pushing under or rising over the other air mass.  An advancing cold air mass from the cold front usually pushes under the warm air mass at the surface, displacing the warm air upwards into the sky. An advancing warm air mass from a warm front will climb or rise over a cold air mass it encounters on the transition zone, rising into the sky to form lift. Lifts caused by both the cold and warm front have a common scenario whereby warm air rises over the cold air mass due to the fact that warm air is lighter (less dense) than cold air.

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Convergence Lift – According to laws of thermodynamics, a gas will move from a high pressure zone to a low pressure zone to achieve a state of equilibrium with its environment. Low pressure zones are warmer and high pressure zones are colder, therefore in weather maps, air in a low pressure area is warm, with its highly energized gaseous molecules diffusing and spreading far apart, whereas in a high pressure zone, the air mass is cold, with low energy molecules coming closer together. Diffusion of air occurs between the warm zone and the cold zone, thus differences in temperature play a role in the movement of air from a high pressure zone to a low pressure zone. The movement of air from a high pressure zone to a low pressure zone is what we call wind.

What causes high and low pressure areas on the earth’s surface? The variation in temperature on various surfaces of the earth is what causes low and high pressure zones. The sun doesn’t heat the earth’s surface uniformly, some areas are more exposed to the sun than others. The earth’s orbit around the sun every 365 days and tilting of its rotational axis every 24 hours affects the distribution of solar radiation on the earth’s surface. Dry land, elevation, terrain slope angle and water bodies (oceans etc) affect the intensity of solar heat reaching the spot. On water bodies, the air is cool while it’s warm on dry land. Thus, on an island or peninsula surrounded by ocean waters, the island is more likely to be a low pressure area (warm zone) where cold ocean currents from all sides meet (converge) and collide to create uplift.

Convection Lift – This is a weather lift caused by convection currents, whereby the sun heats the ground creating warm air which rises to the sky due to its low density. As the warm air rises, cold air descends to the bottom filling the space left by the warm air. Convective lift often results in cumulonimbus clouds. Tall thick cumulonimbus clouds are formed when the surface temperature is very high, creating a rising column of unstable air and accelerating cloud formation. Outside the column of a convection lift, between cumulonimbus clouds, the sky is clear occupied by descending cold air. So in essence, there is a circulation of air in the atmosphere caused by temperature differentials, with warm air rising to the top and cold air descending to the bottom.

Why a Piloted Glider Flies Far and Longer Than a Paper Airplane

A piloted glider, whether it’s a hang glider or powered glider will fly much further and longer than a basic unmanned glider such as a paper airline. This is due to the fact that a paper aeroplane has no pilot or remote controlled system to control the aircraft and maintain thrust every now and then to keep it afloat.

How To Make a Paper Plane That Flies 100 Metres?

Unfortunately, there is no paper airplane which has flown 100 metres. The only paper aeroplanes which have flown the furthest are those in the Guinness Book of Records. A paper plane designed, folded and thrown by a mechanical engineer named Stephen Kreiger in 2003 was the first to set a world record for the longest distance traversed in the air by an origami paper aircraft. The plane flew a distance of 207 feet and 4 inches (63.19 metres). However, this record was broken by a paper aeroplane thrown by former football player Joe Ayoob at the McLellan Air Force Base hangar (Sacramento) on 26 February 2012. It flew 226 feet and 10 inches (69.13 metres). Joe Ayoob’s paper plane was designed and folded by John Collins, a self taught origamist with an interest in aerodynamics.

Generally, to make a fast paper plane that flies the farthest in a straight line, you have to fold up a dart paper plane. The dart design and fold flies further than a glider or any other type of plane. However, the design alone is not sufficient to make a paper airplane fly a long a distance. How you throw the paper plane has a great impact on its speed and distance. The launch angle, throwing force, initial velocity and control must be executed with a high degree of precision, and the thrust must be powerful enough to achieve long distances. So basically, if you are looking to fly your paper plane faster and far, you have to practice your throw. A dart paper airplane design or fold is optimized for speed and distance, but if you don’t know how to take advantage of this design with your throwing skills, you will struggle to achieve record distances. Practice, practice and practice.

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Dart Paper Plane Designs

The following are world record dart paper planes for the longest distance that you can make at home using A5 or A4 paper:

Suzanne World Record Dart Paper Airplane by John Collins (1) 1040×780

Suzanne World Record Dart Paper Airplane by John Collins (3) 1030×1373

Suzanne World Record Dart Paper Airplane by John Collins (4) 1040×780

Suzanne Dart Airplane by John Collins  >> Watch Video

Dart Airplane by Stephen Kreiger

How To Make a Paper Plane That Flies the Longest Time

A glider paper airplane design is optimized for staying afloat in the air for a much longer time than a dart airplane. Its broad wing area gives it increased buoyancy for staying afloat and increasing flight time, whereas a  dart plane has a streamlined body which is good for aerodynamics (speed) achieved by slicing through the air with little or reduced resistance to aerodynamic drag. Basically, a glider needs much less thrust to keep it airborne, while a dart plane (e.g. jet fighter) needs way more thrust to keep it airborne.

The longest flying paper airplane (Sky King) was made by Takuo Toda in 2009. The Japanese engineer who was also presiding as the leader of the Japanese Origami Airplane Association at the time, folded a 10cm paper plane without cutting the sheet or gluing it. The paper aeroplane had a record flight time of 27.9 seconds in the air. According to Takuo Toda, you need some throwing skill to achieve the longest flight. The longest flight is achieved by launching (throwing) the paper plane at the highest angle from the horizontal plane to get the maximum vertical range along the trajectory.

The first glider paper airplane to enter the Guinness Book of Records was the “World Record Airplane” designed and folded by Ken Blackburn in 8 October 1998. It set an airborne record of 27.6 seconds in the Georgia Dome (Atlanta). However, this record was broken by Takuo Toda’s “Sky King” in 2009, edging Blackburn’s record by 0.3 seconds. In December 2010, Takuo Toda went on to beat his own record by 1.3 seconds, clocking a record flight time of 29.2 seconds.

Glider Paper Plane Designs

The following are world record glider paper airplanes for the longest flight time that you can make at home using A4 paper:

Sky King Glider Paper Airplane by Takuo Toda (1) 1040x780

Sky King Glider Paper Airplane by Takuo Toda (1) 1040×780

Sky King Glider Paper Airplane by Takuo Toda (2) 1040x780

Sky King Glider Paper Airplane by Takuo Toda (2) 1040×780

Sky King Glider Paper Airplane by Takuo Toda (3) 1040x780

Sky King Glider Paper Airplane by Takuo Toda (3) 1040×780

Sky King Glider Paper Airplane by Takuo Toda (4) 1040x780

Sky King Glider Paper Airplane by Takuo Toda (4) 1040×780

“World Record Airplane” by Ken Blackburn >> Watch Video

Sky King Airplane by Takuo Toda >> Watch Video

Paper Airplane Competitions

To find out how far or how long your paper airplane can fly, you must join a paper airplane competition. This gives you an opportunity to showcase your throwing skills, competing with the best in the world. The most popular paper plane contest is the Redbull Paper Wings world championships featuring three categories (distance, flight time and aerobatics) where you can participate with your paper plane.

To participate in the Redbull Paper Wings championships, you have to be in a country or location where qualifier events are held. If there is a qualifier event in your town or city, join the qualifiers and compete with other participants to go on to the next stage. There are at least 64 countries and 405 universities around the world participating in this event. If you are skilled in throwing the farthest flying plane, join the Longest Distance category. If you are good at staying afloat in the air for a much longer time, the Longest Airtime category will be suitable for you. For those who are interested in performing stunts and flying tricks with a paper aeroplane, Aerobatics is where you will compete with the like-minded.

Those who survive the qualifiers will go on to compete in the Super Finals whereby the winner as well as the top 10 are listed on the Redbull site. The World Finals are held in Salzburg, Austria at the Redbull Hangar when the event is confirmed on a chosen year. About 52,000 pilots around the world have participated in the Redbull Paper Wings.

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