I’m going to start with stating the obvious, make sure you fold the paper airplane with as much precision as possible! This means each fold is done neatly and evenly on both sides. You also want to flatten each fold with a smooth, hard object like your fingernails or ruler. Make sure you’re up to date on how to correctly make center folds (watch my video).
If your paper airplane looks like a sloppy joe on wheels, get a clean piece of paper fold it again because the tips below are not going to help you. This article is for people that already have a good paper airplanes but want to make them better.
Before we move forward with the juicy stuff, take some time to review why paper airplanes fly in the first place. This article covers the very basics of aerodynamic forces acting on the paper plane when it is in flight. If you want to improve your paper airplane and make it fly farther, you’ll need a good understanding of this.
ADD SOME SPACE TO MAKE IT FLAT
The easiest way to improve your paper airplane is to reduce drag, this is the force slowing it down. To reduce drag, you need to make sure the folds of your paper airplane are as flat as possible.
I’ve already discussed using a smooth, hard object to make beautifully flat creases. This helps a lot but when the paper airplane is two, maybe three layers thick, the creases tend to bounce back. Sometimes, the paper inside the folds are crumpled together. How do you resolve this?
A simple solution and one that works amazingly well is to leave some space. Yes, this kind of contradicts precision but as long as the space you leave is symmetrical on both sides, it will not affect how your paper airplane flies. Let’s take a Dart paper airplane for example, after folding the center crease, don’t align the corner edges to the center line perfectly. Instead, leave a tiny 1mm gap. See the pictures below.
By simply leaving some space, you give yourself enough room so the next fold do not get bunched up inside. Pretty smart right?
GET QUALITY PRINTER PAPER
The type of paper you use affects how your paper airplane flies! Generally speaking, you want to find a quality brand of paper that offers “ultra smooth” or similar products. This type of paper has less drag because the air slides right off. If you’re looking to join a distance competition, stay away from recycled paper, these tend to be more coarse.
Next, you need to figure out the weight of paper best suited for your paper airplane design. For paper airplanes with complex folds, look into thinner paper that is lower in weight. If you’re in the USA, I suggest going with 20 pound paper. For the rest of the world on the metric system, 70 gram paper is a good choice.
Based on my experience, paper airplanes with simple folds usually fly better. As this article is about making paper airplanes fly farther, I suggest going with 24 pound ultra smooth printer paper and a simple design. If your current paper airplane design doesn’t work well with thicker paper, you may want to consider folding another type paper plane. My reasoning is simple, less folds means the paper airplane is thinner giving it less drag. Also, less folds mean the wing span is bigger which equals more lift.
FLAPS & ELEVATORS
I think it’s safe to say the wings are the most important part of a paper airplane. Anything you do to the wings can affect how your paper airplane flies. Let’s start with making sure the wings are even on both sides and your creases are done well. Are the wings held up nicely? If the wings are drooping a lot or easily bent out of shape, it could be the paper you’re using is too light. Try folding your paper airplane with 24 pound paper and see if it flies better.
Next, does your paper airplane shoot up and stall? If you’ve created flaps in the wings that are folded upwards, those could be causing this. These flaps are called elevators. Get rid of any elevators and straighten out your wings and try again. There are some cool looking cuts and folds you can add onto the wings, most of the time these are the culprits causing your paper plane to fly poorly. Before adding these, make sure you know what you’re doing!
Likewise, if the elevators are bent downwards, your paper airplane will nose dive immediately after being thrown. A simple fix is to flatten out the elevators and see if this improves things. It’s like fixing a computer, the first thing is to press the reset button and then debug. Move the elevators up and down at different degrees and find your best option.
Playing around with the elevators in the wings actually shifts the paper airplane’s center of lift and gravity. Once these go out of balance, the paper airplane will not fly well. Sometimes, it won’t fly at all!
KEEP IT FLYING STRAIGHT
If you want to win a distance contest, the most challenging thing to overcome is to make sure your paper airplane flies straight. A straight line is the shortest distance between two points.
This is a tricky subject because sometimes no matter what you do, the paper airplane veers to the side. There are just too many underlying problems that can cause this, so when I get frustrated with a particular paper airplane, I just take out another piece of paper and fold another airplane. Again, press the reset button. In this case, just go with a brand new computer.
There are some tricks to keep a paper airplane flying straight. A good way to maintain stability is to make use of dihedral angles. Without getting too technical, you want the wings of your paper airplane to be tilted slightly upwards. This brings the center of lift of the paper airplane above the center of gravity allowing it to auto-correct itself when flying.
Another trick of the trade is to add fins on the wings. I’ve found that these “side” stabilizers are the way to go for paper airplanes where the wings are folded parallel to the fuselage. The fuselage act as the main vertical stabilizer on most paper airplanes and keeps it flying straight. When the fuselage is too short, the plane is unable to vertically stabilize itself and therefore tilts to one side and crashes. For paper airplanes where wings are folded diagonally, the back fuselage is generally comparable in length with the wings and helps keep the plane flying straight.
As the body generally acts as the vertical stabilizer to the paper airplane, when your paper airplane flies to one side, the best way to counteract it is to adjust the back edge of the fuselage, think of this as the rudder.
Before making changes to the rudder, crease all your folds again and see if your paper airplane will fly straight. If its still veering to one side, you can try making a small pinch to the rudder. Follow the rules below:
If it flies to the right, make a pinch on the left side of the fuselage / rudder.
If it flies to the left, make a pinch on the right side of the fuselage / rudder.
Again, if all else fails, make a new paper airplane!
Tape is not necessary, however, adding several small pieces to keep the nose and wing folds together does help with flight consistency and durability. The reality is paper airplanes are pretty fragile and easily goes out of shape. The easiest way of keeping your paper airplane together is tape!
Don’t go crazy taping your paper airplane together, use small strips and tape modestly. As mentioned before, you want the wings of your paper airplane to be as flat as possible to reduce drag. Look for places where there are protruding folds and tape those down.
For paper airplanes that have been thrown around and worn, the center crease sometimes fall apart mid-flight. This usually causes the plane to immediately crash. A small piece of tape to hold the nose together can resolve this problem.
For paper airplanes with sharp noses, I tape the wings together on top. Some argue it’s best not to tape the wings together because when the paper airplane opens up mid-flight, the wing span increases giving the paper airplane more lift.
If you’re against taping the wings together for pointy nose paper airplanes, I’ve found taping the back edge of the fuselage to work just as well. Add a piece of tape somewhere in the middle between the wings and bottom of the fuselage. This keeps the paper airplane from falling apart but allows the wings to span open mid-flight!
*By the way, tape dispensers usually cuts the tape in a zig-zag pattern. If you’re making a competition paper airplane, you’ll need to cut the tape using scissors.
I hope these tips and tricks will help you with improving your paper airplane. When you fold your paper airplane, don’t rush, make sure each fold is precise and nicely creased. Remember, when all else fails, start over with a new piece of paper.