Aeronautics: How Airfoils Affect Flight

Like most young men, my son is fascinated by planes, trains, automobiles, and ships. His interest in each will ebb and flow like the tide, depending upon various things that give spark. Presently, he is focused on airplanes and would like nothing more than to fly one himself.

He insists that he is capable of flying a plane and enjoys proving this to anyone who will watch him as he plays a simulator game. I’m not so worried about the actual flying; it is the landing that gives me pause.

For our annual homeschool science fair, he expressed interest in designing different airfoils (cross sectional shape of a wing) for a glider to see how the different shape or camber (convex or concave curvature of an airfoil) would affect the flight distance.

Research & Construction

A glider is a light, engineless aircraft designed to glide after being towed aloft or launched from a catapult.  It is composed of three main parts, the fuselage, wing, and the tail.

When air flows past the wing, due to the difference in curvature of its upper and lower parts lift is generated, which is responsible for balancing the weight of the plane, and the glider can thus fly.

Upon settling upon a style, he began designing and constructing his own glider out of a sheet of Styrofoam we purchased at Lowe’s.  For several weekends, he and his dad set about cutting, glueing, and sanding the foam sheets to resemble the fuselage. Along the way, a few modifications to his original design were necessary to enable the airfoils to be easily interchangeable.


Testing: How Does the Airfoil Affect Flight?

Concerned that the glider would get damaged upon landing, he made the decision to launch it from a seated position.  He grasped the fuselage in the same spot and made every effort to be consistent with the effort he used to launch it each time.

A tape measure was laid out upon the ground and he measured the distance it flew (using the nose of the fuselage as the reference point). He flew the glider three times with each airfoil, recording the distances flown in his journal.



He discovered that there was no significant difference between the airfoils he had used; the average distance that each airfoil flew varied by only a couple of centimeters. He surmised that this was due in part to his low launch height, the design of the glider (would it have been better to have a slot in the fuselage so that the airfoil was lower?), and the similarity of the camber (perhaps the airfoils were not different enough; it was difficult to sand the thin Styrofoam without breaking it).

He was very disappointed but understood (after a few tears and much consolation) that his project did not fail.  Regardless of the result, he had a great time, bonded with his dad, and loved telling his friends about his project at the science fair.



About Eva Varga

Eva is passionate about education. She has extensive experience in both formal and informal settings. She presently homeschools her two young children, teaches professional development courses through the Heritage Institute, and writes a middle level secular science curriculum called Science Logic. In addition to her work in education, she is an athlete, competing in Masters swimming events and marathons. In her spare time she enjoys reading, traveling, learning new languages, and above all spending time with her family. ♥

2 comments on “Aeronautics: How Airfoils Affect Flight

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