What makes a paper airplane fly when its wings are not shaped like real airplane wings? — JC, Idaho Falls, ID
Even though a paper airplane’s wings are flat, they experience all of the aerodynamic forces found in more sophisticated wings. For example, when the air flowing past the paper airplane encounters the lower surfaces of its wings, this air slows down and its pressure rises above atmospheric pressure. However, while the air flowing over a sophisticated airplane wing experiences a substantial increase in speed and consequently a drop in pressure, this effect is very small in a paper airplane’s wing. Depending on how the air flows over or around the wing’s leading edge and whether or not it breaks away from the wing’s upper surface, the air pressure above the wing will be at or slightly below atmospheric pressure. Nonetheless, the air pressure below the wing is always slightly higher than that above the wing and the wing experiences a net upward aerodynamic force—a lift force. If you examine the airflow around a well-designed paper airplane wing, all of the flow features that occur around a sophisticated wing will be present but weak. Bowing the wing outward, as is done in a sophisticated wing, simply enhances those features so that the wing can lift a larger load.