AE Unit 2: Gliders

Fine-tuning airfoils to create precision gliders


The planes we fly in today are powered by propellers or jet engines: topics we’ll discuss later in the course.  Simpler flying machines can be made that have no engine at all.  These gliders are able to sustain flight simply by taking advantage of airfoils.  In our second unit, we will cover concepts in glider design where you’re expected to learn the following:

  • The types of gliders and vocabulary used to discuss them
  • How to simulate glider effectiveness using modeling software
  • How to construct gliders of different sizes and materials
  • How to use control surfaces to trim your glider

Last unit we discussed the ideas of lift and drag as well as how airfoils help make flight possible.  In this unit we’ll apply those ideas in the creation of a series of gliders. In this unit, you’ll go through three major steps:

  • STEP 1: Build a very simple glider to demonstrate the principles, build control surfaces, and get a baseline for distance.
  • STEP 2: Use the AERY software to design and build your own custom glider out of balsa wood that can travel at least 75 feet in a straight line
  • STEP 3: Work with your team to design and build a large glider that can fly as far across the mat room as possible

When you’re done, you’ll have built three working gliders with increasing knowledge and complexity.


(10 pts) About 2 days

Our first, simplest gliders will come from a basic kit.  You’ll start by building the glider kit and seeing how well it works.  Then you’ll take notes on gliders from a video and consider how your kit glider may have been improved to make it fly better.


(40 pts) About 3 days

As usual, we can simulate effective glider construction using software.  Here, you’ll learn some glider principles and simulate different glider designs using the computer.  Then you’ll build your best design out of balsa wood and fine-tune it to fly 75 feet.


(20 pts) About 4 days

As a team, combine what you know now about gliders and airfoils to create the ultimate glider.  Build a large-scale glider out of foam, or other materials.  Use the engineering design process to build a larger glider that can fly as far as possible!

Part 1: Beginning Gliders

The basics of glider construction and glider physics

Glider Directions

AE Data Spreadsheet

To start, you’ll get one of the basic glider kits and assemble it following the directions that are provided. This basic glider will demonstrate some principles, but won’t be nearly as good as the gliders we design and build ourselves. Once your glider is together you’ll fly it to see how far it goes and how consistent it is. Then, you’ll take some careful notes on glider principles and glider types.  Finally, you’ll brainstorm some of the ways that the kit glider could be improved to possibly fly better.


Build the basic glider kit following the directions provided

Take careful notes on glider principles, glider types, and brainstormed improvements

 Have Mr. Benshoof confirm your basic glider & notes

Glider Data

Glider Types

Glider Principles

What’s Due In Part 1: Beginning Gliders

  • Basic Glider
  • Glider Notes
  • Mr. Benshoof’s Confirmation

Here’s what’s due in Part 1: Beginning Gliders

  1. The construction and data from your basic glider kit
  2.  Notes on glider principles, glider types, and glider improvements
  3.  Have Mr. Benshoof confirm your completed 4-Part Challenge

Part 2: Designing Gliders

Using the computer to simulate and design custom balsa gliders

AERY Simulation


AERY Configuration for Single Sheet Construction

In the last unit we needed to use a simulator to design our airfoils before we spent any time building the physical models.  Here, we’ll use a simulation software called AERY to design balsa wood gliders before deciding on a design and building prototypes.  You’ve investigated different parts of gliders and planes, and AERY will be able to calculate how likely the glider is to fly based on the given dimensions.  Use Aery to design two sample gliders that meet specific criteria.

Once you’re familiar with the software, design a glider of your making that fits the given criteria.  Make sure it has the highest possible AERY number – an indicator of its flyability – and then print your design. You’ll then build the prototype out of balsa wood, add control surfaces, and get it trimmed so it can fly 75 feet down our main hallway!


 Take careful notes on AERY and glider design

 Design the two practice gliders: one traditional, and one canard design

 Design your own design that fits within the given size parameters

 Build your glider from the printed AERY plans and get it trimmed out to fly 75ft down the hallway!

 Have Mr. Benshoof check-off your construction, best flight, and scoring

Getting Started in AERY


Building Your Glider

Trimming Your Glider

What’s Due In Part 2: Designing Gliders

  • AERY Notes
  • Design & Build
  • Mr. Benshoof’s Check-off

Here’s what’s due in Part 2: Designing Gliders

  1. Take careful notes on AERY and glider design
  2.  Design gliders in AERY and build your best design out of balsa
  3. Have Mr. Benshoof check-off your glider and your best flight

Part 3: Long Distance Glider Challenge

Design and build a long-distance glider

Long Distance Glider Challenge

In the first unit we looked at airfoils in great depth.  In fact, there is still some data in our shared AE spreadsheet about which airfoils were the most effective.  Then, over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at glider construction and how shapes, sizes, and surfaces all impact glider performance.  In this last part of the Glider Design unit you need to work with your team to create (possibly a few) long-distance gliders.

You’ll start by reviewing the glider challenge:  go more than 150 ft.  

Then your team will design a glider and its construction.  You can make multiple gliders if you want, but I expect 1 glider for the group is probably the best way to go based on the time constraint.  You will then be able to create a glider out of balsa, foam, carbon fiber, or anything you’d like.  It can also be whatever size your materials allow.  The goal is to make a glider that can travel at least 150 ft across the mat room.


 Work with your team to design and build a long-distance glider

 Each person must document the team’s design process in your engineering notebook!

 Be ready to demonstrate your long distance glider on the unit due date!

What’s Due In Part 3: Long Distance Glider Challenge

  • Glider Notes
  • Build Your Glider
  • Documentation
  • Mr. Benshoof’s Confirmation

Here’s what’s due in Part 3: Long Distance Glider Challenge

  1. Design, build, test, and finalize a long-distance glider
  2.  Each person must document your team’s design process in your engineering notebook!
  3. Have Mr. Benshoof confirm your official long-distance flight

Double Check: Unit Expectations

Check what you need to have completed by the unit deadline

The purpose of this unit is to put airfoils to use in the creation of some increasingly complex gliders.  The gliders we start with help us understand the basic forces at play, and also to help identify how control surfaces can help us improve the trim of our glider.  The second glider we build helps us see how computer simulation can cut out a lot of the trial-and-error that is part of the early building stages.  Those second stage balsa wood gliders will give you full control over your design in a reasonable way, and they are the focus of the unit.

Even more fun though is trying to develop the best glider possible.  We will end the unit with an attempt at creating a long-distance glider.  The glider your team builds can be made of any material available in the lab, and can be any size that our materials will allow.  There are lots of hints available, and you can use other online resources it you’d like to try and develop the best solution.  

Engineering Notebook:

(Part 1) You should have detailed notes on glider principles, types, and possible improvements

(Part 2) You should have good notes on AERY and general glider design

(Part 3) You should have documented the process your team went through to build your large glider

Building & Making:

(Part 1) You should have built your basic glider from the kit

(Part 2) You should have built your custom balsa glider by following the AERY directions

 (Part 3) You should have worked with your team to tackle the Long Distance Glider Challenge

Checkpoints & Quizzes:

(Part 1) Mr. Benshoof should have checked-off your basic glider & notes

 (Part 2) Mr. Benshoof should have checked-off your custom balsa glider

(Part 3) Mr. Benshoof should have confirmed your final long-distance flights