The Explainer General
Since he was a boy, John Collins has been fascinated by paper airplanes. Who isn’t? Most of us have folded the familiar dart-shaped classroom airplane. Good fun. And it’s science.
Big and small aircraft depend on the same four principles: weight (of the craft), drag (wind resistance over the craft), lift (upward force from air passing over the craft’s flight surfaces), and thrust (what pushes the craft). A 747 Jumbo Jet and a paper airplane depend on the same forces.
Collins wanted to fold this aeroscience into paper. But how to build (fold) complex principles into something so small?
He found the ancient Japanese art of origami and used its sculptural tricks. He created paper aircraft that do astonishing things. One comes back in a horizontal circle, like a boomerang. Another flies up, turns over and comes back vertically. One actually flaps its wings as it glides slowly. To John, they’re all working science experiments: every flight leads to some knowledge and to new ideas for tweaking the aircraft so it flies better.
John Collins became “The Paper Airplane Guy.” He believes that scientific research happens everywhere, every day. He says, “It doesn’t take computers, lab coats, microscopes and the like. It takes a hunger to know. Science is just the structured way we find stuff out. The science you can do with a simple sheet of paper is no less important than what can be done with an electron microscope.”
On February 26, 2012, John and Joe Ayoob stood in a big, windless aircraft hangar with John’s best-so-far flyer, Suzanne. (He named it after his wife.) Joe was a professional football quarterback who learned to throw Suzanne hard but steady, not like a football but like a delicate piece of origami. Joe threw Suzanne up, up, and it dived down to fly – really fly – 226 feet and 10 inches, the Guinness World Record for distance thrown.
John wanted paper airplanes to welcome young people into science. He started a National Paper Airplane Contest called the Kickstarter Project with a big prize for anyone who throws Suzanne farther than Joe. Or you could throw your own better, more aeronautically elegant paper airplane. It was a simple, scientific task. Every paper airplane and every flight would be a new experiment, just as important as the Wright Brothers’ Kittyhawk flight. Science isn’t just geeks and labs; we’re all part of it. The project didn’t get support and ended. John would like to direct people to www.TheNationalPaperAirplaneContest.com. Air and Science museums across the country will be hosting events. The museums get three Fly for Fun Days; STEM education days that teach basic flight concepts and skills for the national contest.
Jan Adkins is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, WiFi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "Flat Paper Flight." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 9 Apr.
As any paper airplane pilot knows, getting into the air and staying up in the air are two different things. An out-of-control, unstable paper airplane quickly ends up on the floor—no matter how powerfully you threw it. Controlling an airplane was the problem yet to be solved in the late 1890s. Many of the inventors racing to be the first to build a powered flying machine didn’t understand that controlling an airplane is different from controlling other vehicles of the time. But the Wright Brothers did.
Unlike a car or boat, an airplane moves in three directions: pitch, yaw, and roll. Stable flight takes correctly controlling all three.
When you steer a boat, you move a rudder to go left or right. This is yaw. Turn a rudder on its side and you get an elevator, which controls a submarine as it dives and surfaces. This is pitch. Airplanes also have elevators and rudders. But flying takes more than up-down and right-left control. An airplane also tilts side to side, in a motion called roll. Think of a jet tilting its wings as it changes direction. Or a little kid zooming around with tilted arms spread wide.
Controlling the roll of an airplane was the secret to stable, sustained flight. And this is where the Wright Brothers had an edge. They built bicycles. A bicycle is an unstable vehicle when it isn’t moving. In fact, it falls over. A moving bicycle is much easier to balance than a stopped one. And steering a moving bicycle is more than just turning the handlebars right or left. The rider must lean into turns, tilting his body to keep balanced. Sound familiar? It’s the same kind of motion as roll.
Orville and Wilbur Wright knew about roll and worked on a way to control it even while experimenting with gliders. They controlled roll through wing-warping, a system of cables attached to the wings that twisted their shape, like twisting an empty aluminum foil box. The pilot controlled which way the wings warped by moving his hips as he lay on the airplane in a kind of cradle. Soon ailerons, those flaps on the backside of airplane wings, became the controller of roll. But the brothers of the Wright Cycle Company figured it out—and flew—first.
If you look at pitch, roll and yaw together you can see that each type of motion helps control the direction and level of the plane when it is flying. The ailerons raise and lower the wings. The pilot controls the roll of the plane by raising one aileron or the other with a control wheel. The rudder works to control the yaw of the plane. Pressing the right rudder pedal moves the rudder to the right. This yaws the aircraft to the right. Used together, the rudder and the ailerons are used to turn the plane. The elevators which are on the tail section are used to control the pitch of the plane. Lowering the elevators makes the plane nose go down and allows the plane to go down. By raising the elevators the pilot can make the plane go up.
First successful flight of the Wright Flyer, by the Wright brothers. The machine traveled 120 ft (36.6 m) in 12 seconds. Orville Wright was at the controls of the machine, lying prone on the lower wing with his hips in the cradle which operated the wing-warping mechanism. Wilbur Wright ran alongside to balance the machine. Library of Congress
Mary Kay Carson's The Wright Brothers for Kids: How They Invented the Airplane, 21 Activities Exploring the Science and History of Flight tells the amazing true story of how two bicycle-making brothers from Ohio, with no more than high-school educations, accomplished a feat on the beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, that forever changed the world.
MLA 8 Citation
Carson, Mary Kay. "How Did Building Bikes Help the Wright Brothers Invent the
Airplane?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 28 Mar. 2018,