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Cruise control

Learn how wind affects the speed of flight and how quickly a bird could reach your home.
Plan a session with this activity

You will need

  • Pens or pencils
  • Paper cups
  • Rulers
  • Permanent markers
  • Clean, empty plastic bottles (500ml)
  • Stopwatch or phone
  • Calculator or phone
  • Access to the internet
  • Hole punch pliers
  • Wooden dowels
  • Duct tape

Before you begin

  • Familiarise yourself with what an anemometer (a device that can be used to measure windspeed) looks like. Seeing an example may help the group to follow the instructions.
  • Familiarise yourself with wind speed calculations and how to find speed, distance and time.
  • The anemometer requires wind to move the cups around. If you don’t have outdoor space at your meeting place, consider doing this activity during a camp or even a visit to an airfield.
  • The long lengths of dowel need to be 14 inches.

Make an anemometer

  1. Everyone should get into small groups. Every small group needs a pencil, five paper cups, two 14-inch lengths of wooden dowel, one short dowel, a ruler, marker pens, duct tape, and one empty drink bottle.
  2. Use the pencil to mark out four holes on an upright paper cup.
  1. Use the hole punch pliers to make the four holes.
  2. Use a ruler and pencil to mark the middle of the two 14-inch dowels. Also mark 1.75 inches (4.5 cm) from each end. This is where the centres of the outside cups will go.
  3. Push the dowels through the holes in the cup, until the centre marks meet in the middle. There will be four equal ends of dowel sticking out from the cup.
  4. Use marker pens to decorate one of the extra cups, so it is obviously different from the others.
  5. Set out the four extra cups so they are lying down in a square around the dowels. The base of one cup should be near the rim of the next: no rims or bases together.
  6. Use the pencil to mark a spot 1cm below the rim of each cup, where the dowel will go in.
  7. Use the hole punch pliers to make a hole in each cup.
  8. Slide the cups onto the dowels with their centres over the marked points. Secure them in place with duct tape.
  9. Use the short piece of dowel to carefully pierce the base of the middle cup.
  10. Thread the short dowel through the hole until it meets the cross formed by the long dowels. Tape everything together. This will be the axis around which your anemometer will rotate.
  11. Lift the anemometer up and put the end of the short dowel inside an empty drink bottle. The anemometer should now be free to rotate.

Work out your windspeed

  1. Every group should take their anemometer outside and check the wind will turn the cups. If the bottle is unstable in the wind, use duct tape to secure it to a surface or add water or sand to keep it steady.
  2. Every group should set up the anemometer and a timer. Someone should time 60 seconds, while the rest of the group counts each rotation of the decorated cup.
  3. Use a calculator to work out the windspeed in miles per hour (mph).

Fly the coop

  1. Every group should open up Google Maps and drop a pin somewhere.
  2. Select ‘measure distance’ from the menu and measure the distance between two points. Everyone should try measuring long and short distances: how far it is from their current location to their home, compared with their home and their favourite holiday destination?
  3. Every group should discuss what it means to have the wind ‘with or ‘against’.
  1. Every group should work out how fast a bird could fly against the wind, from their current location to one of their homes, using the wind speed they have measured.
    • The flight speed of an unladen European swallow is roughly 25mph. To work out how fast it would fly against the wind, take away your measured wind speed from the flight speed. So, a 25mph bird flying into a 2.5mph wind would only be moving at 22.5mph because of the wind.
    • Now, use Google Maps to measure the distance to your home. Once we know the speed and the distance, we can work out the time it would take to get there.
    • If your home is 0.5 miles away, and the bird’s groundspeed is 22.5mph, divide distance by speed to get time: 0.022 hours. This is a strange way to measure it, so multiply by 60 to get the answer in minutes. The answer is 1.32, meaning it would take a bird about one minute and 20 seconds to fly half a mile to your home with a 2.5mph headwind.
  1. Every group should work out how fast they could get to one of their favourite holiday destinations by plane, flying with the wind, using the wind speed they have measured.
    • A Cessna 172 plane has a cruising speed of about 140 mph. To work out how fast it would fly with the wind, add the plane’s speed to the wind speed (142.5mph).
    • Take the plane’s speed and divide it by a distance of 285 miles to a favourite holiday spot. This gives a flight time of 0.5 hours, or 30 minutes.


This activity helped everyone to understand challenges and find solutions. Take a moment to think about the difficulties that wind speed and direction might pose to a pilot. Why is it important to know wind speed if you want to fly a plane? People may remember that strong wind can make it difficult to fly, or push the plane in a direction the pilot might not want it to go.

This activity also helped everyone to gain practical and modern skills. What did people find difficult in this activity? Was taking a physical measurement of the wind speed a good way to understand the wind speed numbers involved? Sometimes it’s hard to understand the scale of things without context for the numbers. Did feeling the wind help people understand what the numbers they measured meant?


Glue and solvents

Supervise young people appropriately when they’re using glue and solvent products. Make sure there’s plenty of ventilation. Be aware of any medical conditions which could be affected by glue or solvent use and make adjustments as needed.


Supervise young people appropriately when they’re using scissors. Store all sharp objects securely, out of the reach of young people

Rubbish and recycling

All items should be clean and suitable for this activity.

Online safety

Supervise young people when they’re online and give them advice about staying safe.

For more support around online safety or bullying, check out the NSPCC website. If you want to know more about specific social networks and games, Childnet has information and safety tips for apps. You can also report anything that’s worried you online to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection command.

As always, if you’ve got concerns about a young person’s welfare (including their online experiences), follow the Yellow Card reporting processes.

All activities must be safely managed. Do a risk assessment and take appropriate steps to reduce risk. Always get approval for the activity and have suitable supervision and an InTouch process.