Airfoil Plane

Grades: 9th & 10th
Subjects: Physics, Geometry, Aviation
Key Outcomes:

How can air support the weight of a heavier-than-air vehicle? How does airfoil geometry impact performance? What airfoil cross-sections provide the best performance for small-scale flight, and what underlying mathematical and physical factors are involved?

In two related airfoils projects, students built wings (for hand-launched and discus-launched gliders, respectively) in order to test these aerodynamic questions. Their research began with inquiry into the anatomy of airfoils: students learned about ribs and spars, camber and chords, and more. Because an airfoil-shaped body produces aerodynamic force as it moves through a fluid, students worked to decode the mysteries of fluid flows, developing a qualitative understanding of aerodynamics in the process. Blueprints came next: students created concept drawings and scale blueprints for balsa-construction glider aircraft. Then, it was time to build and fly the gliders.
Charlie, grade 9, has grown up around aviation, flying with his dad on their 4-seater. Since the airfoil projects, he thinks differently about how the small aircraft responds in the air. 

 “This project helped me see how everything worked together,” Charlie remembers. “I have a more detailed understanding of the relationship between the shape of the wing and the flight movement.”

Braden, grade 9, also comes from an aviation-focused family (his grandfather built his own functioning crop duster). But during this project, he was more captivated by the math and physics going on behind the scenes. 

“We were looking at a glider’s pitch, roll, yaw, and thrust. The math behind how thrust actually generates lift for an aircraft was really interesting to me,” Braden says.

The finished wings and aircraft are on display at Innovation High School.

Airfoil Calculation Tool
The Science of Airfoils