Every flying thing, whether it’s an airplane, spacecraft, soccer ball, or flying kid, experiences four aerodynamic forces: lift, weight, thrust, and drag. An airplane uses a propeller or jet engine to generate thrust. The wings create lift. The smooth, pencil-thin shape minimizes drag. And the molecules that make up the airplane attribute to the weight.

Think of a time when you were riding in a fast-moving car. Imagine rolling down the window and sticking out your hand, palm down. The wind slips over your hand. Suppose you turn your palm to face the horizon. In which position do you think you would feel more force against your hand?

When designing airplanes, engineers pay attention to details, such as the position of two important points: the center of gravity and the center of pressure (also called the center of lift). On an airplane, if the center of gravity and center of pressure points are reversed, the aircraftโ€™s flight is unstable and it will somersault into chaos. The same is true for rockets and missiles!

How to Build an Airplane

Materials: balsa wood flyer

This video shows how to use a balsa airplane to show what all the parts (rudder, wings, elevator, fuselage) are for.ย  You can pick one up for a few dollars, usually at a toy store, or make your own (see second video below).

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17 Responses to “Why do airplanes need wings?”

  1. Lauren Doty says:

    Such joy this morning watching my kids make and experiment with their balsa planes. My oldest looks like a mad scientist as she tweaks, tests, and then scribbles notes down in her science journal. Even my 3 year old has picked up the names of the parts of the plane, exclaiming loudly when the elevator or the rudder fall off. He finds that more amusing than the actual flying of the plane, lol. Thanks for another fun experiment!

  2. Did you get my secret email to you regarding your balsa wood request?

  3. Foam sheet can work if you balance it just right.

  4. Lorelei Grecian says:

    Can you use something else besides balsa wood?

  5. Lorelei Grecian says:

    We have micheals but none of the other stores. Still can’t find any ๐Ÿ™ Can you keep the e-camp experiments on the website all year. Please ๐Ÿ˜€

  6. ot mine from the craft store, like Jo-Ann’s, Beverly’s, or Micheal’s. Let me know if you still have trouble!

  7. Lorelei Grecian says:

    I am having a bit of trouble, i’ve looked on all the hardware stores online and they have no balsa wood. ๐Ÿ™ I want to make the airplane so much. PLEASE HELP ME ๐Ÿ˜€

  8. Rani John says:

    Thanks for your two answers, Aurora!

  9. That’s the name of the airplane design. “Lock” means that you don’t need tape because of the locking design that keeps the folds in.

  10. You’re right – the force is greatest when your palm is facing the horizon – that’s where the wind sees the greatest surface area to push against.

  11. Rani John says:

    I can’t do the balsa thing. I checked out everything, and nobody has even heard of it! Do you have a solution? Do you know of any stores in San Jose that has one of these ‘balsa’ thingies?

  12. Rani John says:

    I read the Wright Brothers part to my child from the Game Plan section you have. She read it and said, ‘ Mom, don’t read it again! I’ve heard that too many times already.’ Ha ha ha!

  13. Rani John says:

    I love the phrase you put in section 3. Sick bags and a parachute. Ha ha ha!

  14. Rani John says:

    Another thing, Aurora. My child wants to know what a Nakamura Lock is. Can you tell me what it is or where to find the answer?

  15. Rani John says:

    My child wanted to answer the question that you asked in the first section paragraph 2 – she said she would feel more force if her palm was facing the horizon. Is that correct, or is it wrong? Should I explain the question to her or not?

  16. Thanks for your eagle-eye! it should be working now… ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. Laurie Curtis says:

    tweaking link is “not found”