Design to Fly: Balsa Gliders

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Introduction: Design to Fly: Balsa Gliders

About: I'm a chemist, educator, and maker who strives to bring creative learning experiences to all children.

Use basic materials like pencils, paper, scissors, ruler, etc. (and maybe some high-tech tools!) to design and test your own balsa glider. Use the files provided to cut a glider body on a laser cutter, plotter or even a blade. Now, experiment with wing size, shape, and curvature either on paper or with your favorite design software. When you've found a design that works best for you, cut the paper with scissors or your favorite cutting tool. Experiment with pennies to determine the effect of added weight in various amounts and positions on your glider. Try your designs by throwing your glider and measure how far it flies...improve upon your designs after each trial!

*This activity is aligned with the Girl Scouts Fling Flyer Design Challenge badge. Please refer to Girls Scouts badge booklet and Volunteer Toolkit for complete badge requirements.

Step 1: Materials

You will need:

  • A sheet of 1/8 inch thick balsa wood (at least nine inches long and four inches wide for each glider body you want to cut)
  • Several pieces of card stock (at least 60 lb)
  • ruler
  • scissors
  • tape (masking tape works great)
  • pennies
  • tape measure
  • box cutter or xacto blade (optional)

Step 2: Prep Glider Bodies

Use the provided files to cut out glider bodies using a cutting plotter or laser cutter. If you don't have these tools, print the .pdf template on card stock, cut out the pattern and trace it on to your balsa. You can cut it out using VERY sharp scissors or carefully using a blade. If you use a blade, make sure to use a cutting mat.

Step 3: Wing and Tail Design

Take a look at different wing designs and styles and decide what options you want to try...or design your own! The tail of your glider can be the same shape as your wings, just smaller! The information below comes form NASA's K-12 Wing Design Curriculum .

Rectangular Wing: A rectangular wing is used on slower aircraft, typically training aircraft. It is somewhat maneuverable but allows for a high margin of pilot error. It also produces a large amount of lift so that the wing can be smaller in comparison to the body of the aircraft.

Elliptical Wing: An elliptical wing is similar to the rectangular wing but is usually lighter and generates much more lift. It is often found on gliders and ultra-light aircraft.

Swept Wing: Swept wings are usually found on jet aircraft. The thinner profile produces less drag, meaning it can fly at faster speeds. It is also much more maneuverable. These aircraft are less capable of flying at slow speeds however, so most swept wings are fitted with additional devices such as flaps or slats to assist in producing lift at low speeds.

Delta Wing: The delta wing is used on very high speed (supersonic) aircraft, which are extremely maneuverable but much harder to control at slower speeds. As with the swept wing, they are also fitted with additional components to assist at slower speeds.

Step 4: Designing You Own Wing Shape

Grab a piece of card stock and and draw out the shape of the wing design you would like to test.

Step 5: Cutting Out Design

Once you have designed your glider wing shape, cut it out using scissors.

Step 6: Assemble Your Glider

Once you have cut out the wing design, slide it through the slot on the pre-made glider body. Secure it with a few pieces of masking tape.

Step 7: Try Your Design

Try out your design! Set up a runway about 20 feet long to measure the distance your glider can go. Make sure you have plenty of room and that the area is clear of obstacles (especially fragile ones)!

To test your glider, hold it just below the wings, pull your hand back and gently toss it up and forward.

Step 8: Observe Your Results

Use a tape measure to determine how far your glider flew. Make note of any interesting movements, or elements that may have failed, and form some ideas on how you might improve the design. An example of this process is below:

Distance traveled: 2 feet

Notes: I observed the glider flipped up

Changes/Ideas: The nose of the glider might need some weight to keep it from flipping up

Step 9: Adjust Design After Test

After you've tested your design, make changes you think might help improve its flight. For this glider, we tried adding weight to the nose to keep it level. You can also experiment with the angle and curvature of the wings or other elements you think might affect flight.

Step 10: Try Again

Observe how far the glider went, what was different from the first test? Are there any other modifications to improve your design? Repeat the measurement and note-taking process:

Distance traveled: 15 feet

Notes: With added weight to the nose, the glider stayed level

Step 11: Laser Cut Wing

For a high tech and high volume challenge, you can design several wing shapes in your favorite digital design software. Use your favorite cutting tool to cut out your designs and repeat the test/note taking process.

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    4 Discussions

    I would try the term cutting mat when looking on amazon etc.

    Why not cut the fuselage in card instead of expensive balsa?

    Fun! I would enjoy trying out different wings on it :)