Paper plane

Lockdown Challenge: The ultimate paper flying machine

Image credit: Dreamstime

The third brace of Lockdown Challenges simply uses a piece of paper – are you and your offspring ready for this challenge set before you?

We’re into our third week now and we have a quite different challenge for you. It starts with a very literal sheet of blank paper and challenges you to turn it into the best paper aeroplane around.

As ever, the IET also has a host of resources through which adults can engage children into the world of STEM at: 

We would love it if people sent in pictures or videos, or even just suggestions on how to make these challenges better or ideas for new ones. Please email

Lockdown Challenge #5 – the ultimate paper aeroplane

When we conceived the idea of the Lockdown Challenge, this was one of the projects I was most excited about, having previously put it to the test during my years of running a youth club. As we all know, you can’t force kids to enjoy stuff just because we think they should. But this activity, like so many others in this series of challenges, works at many different levels.

Partly this is because a ‘paper plane’ is not just one thing. It can be a very simple paper dart that is folded in under a minute – and at the youth club, this often appealed to the more exuberant who want to quickly create something that could be used as a missile. Alternatively, they can be a piece of precision origami that takes skill and concentration. While it seems obvious that the next generation of engineers will gravitate towards the more complex, its not necessarily the case. In between the two extremes, there is something to spark the imagination of anyone, of any age.

For me, the bible for this activity was a book called ‘The Gliding Flight’ by John M Collins. The author has since gained celebrity status, given TED talks, written many books and been on TV as the Paper Plane Guy (which is the name of his website). He is also the Guinness World Record holder for a paper plane flight. However, that first book, which is over 30 years old now and was rather poorly printed, contains some brilliant designs aimed at all levels of ability. What is more, he introduces it with some basic principles of the theory of flight and how the science translates to the paper plane designs; even how to throw them and trim them so they fly better. Every flight is a test flight, he says, all part of the learning process.

Some are difficult and a real achievement to produce, while others, including his record-breaking design, are pretty simple. All, if made well, will fly for at least 20m, and experience will demonstrate that even the simplest of planes will fly better if it is made with care.

These planes will fly indoors or out, but while not everyone has access to a sports hall to fly them in there are games that will test the skill of making and throwing. For example, some targets lined up on the back of a sofa can be a test of accuracy, while trying to land a plane on a tabletop (or an area of non-carpeted floor) will require a slow gliding plane with a very linear flight. Adults and children will learn how planes with different wing areas, wing angles and centre of balance perform differently and, particularly for the simpler darts, there is plenty of scope to experiment with designs to get the performance desired.

My advice is to buy the book (other paper plane books are available of course!), but there are also numerous videos on YouTube that will show you how to make Collins' planes, and below is an introductory video that he made recently as lockdown was kicking in.


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