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Fantastic elastic flying machines

Stretch yourself and spring into action as we build and fly rubber band-powered model aircraft.
Plan a session with this activity

You will need

  • Drawing pins
  • Craft materials (for example, tissue paper, pipe cleaners, stickers)
  • A4 paper
  • Scissors
  • Sticky tape
  • Rulers
  • Elastic bands
  • Felt pens and a pencil
  • Hot glue gun (or alternative)
  • Any decorations
  • Paper clips
  • Pliers
  • Cotton bud
  • Plastic drinking straws
  • Repurposed PET plastic, from a 2l bottle or disposable cup

You will also need to print copies of the ‘Propeller pattern’ sheet. This one has been created by Science Toy Maker and inspired the activity below.

Propeller pattern

Before you begin

  • If you’re using hot glue guns for this activity, make sure you’ve carried out a risk assessment beforehand. Demonstrate how to use the glue gun safely to the whole group. Make sure there are enough adults and helpers to supervise the use of glue gun(s).
  • If you have no access to hot glue guns, you could use PVA or another similar glue, or sticky tape. PVA and similar glues need time to dry before models can be flown, so you’ll need to factor this into your session. It may be necessary to run this activity over several sessions, in order to share materials or equipment and allow glue to dry.

Run the activity

  1. Everyone will need their copy of the ‘Propeller pattern’ sheet, some PET plastic, a ruler, a pen and scissors. From a PET plastic cup or bottle, cut off the top and bottom and then cut down one side of the cylinder. Unroll the plastic and lay it flat. Use the ‘Propeller pattern’ sheet example as a guide to draw the outlines of two propellers with rounded edges using a felt pen. They both need to be about 2cm wide and 9cm long. Once drawn, cut out the plastic propellers.
  2. Take a cotton bud. Remove the cotton swabs from the ends, so that you’re just left with the plastic stick. Cut a section about 1.5cm long from one end. Put this section to one side for now. Mark the centre point on the longer piece of plastic stick. With glue, attach the propeller blades to either end of the stick, leaving a small space in the middle. Attach one of the blades tilted at a 45 degree angle and the other straight. Take the hollow 1.5cm piece of plastic stick and glue it to the centre point, between the propellers in the small space, to make a T-shape.
  3. Take a paperclip and pliers. Follow the guide on the ‘Propeller pattern’ sheet to carefully bend the clip into a hook to hold rubber bands.
  4. Take some A4 paper to make your wings. Fold it in half lengthways. Unfold it and use the ruler to mark the middle of the page. Then take a straw and use the ruler to mark the middle of that. With tape, attach it to the paper so that the two marks line up, with the straw running parallel 2-3cm from the fold line on either side of the page.
  5. Add some glue along the top of the taped-down straw. Re-fold the paper and stick the other side down on top of the straw. Glue or tape the corners and edges of the sheet together to complete your wing.
  6. Take four more straws to make the main body of the plane, the ‘fuselage.’ Insert the ends of two of the straws into the other two, to make two doubly-long straws. Take a fifth straw and cut two 2cm pieces from it. Dab some glue on the sides of each piece and use them to connect your two doubly-long straws together at their ends.
  7. Take some leftover PET plastic, and push a drawing pin through it. Cut a 1cm square out with the drawing pin hole in its centre. Glue this to one end of the fuselage, without blocking the hole.
  8. Take the paperclip hook and push the straight end out through the front of the plastic square. The hook should now be between the two long straws. Take the straight end and rotate it clockwise and anti-clockwise to see that it turns easily, without the hook catching on the straws.
  1. Dab some glue on the straight end of the paperclip, and slot the 1.5cm piece of hollow plastic stick at the centre of the propeller over it. Make sure this is securely glued in place.
  2. Tie three rubber bands together. Check the length of your bands pulled taut against that of your fuselage. If they match, attach one end of the band to the propeller hook and squeeze the other end through the small connecting piece of straw at the back of the fuselage. Pull through the end of the taut band and place a small piece of paperclip or similar through the loop to hold it there. You should further secure this with glue or sticky tape.
  1. Mark the centre point on the wings made earlier. Line up the centre precisely with the fuselage and glue the wings to it. Try to fit them about 12cm from the propeller, for the best balance.
  2. Take another sheet of A4 and fold it in half lengthways to make a tail wing. Cut a rectangle of about 16x8cm from the folded side of the paper. Mark the centre of this and fold the short edges to meet in the middle. Finish any decorations, personalise the models so they can be told apart and then glue the tail wing to the back end of the fuselage, to complete the build.
  1. Run a flight test of the models in a large indoor or outdoor space. Wind up the tension in the propeller and throw the model into the air.
  1. Once everyone has made their adjustments, see whose aircraft can fly the furthest, and whose can stay in the air the longest.

Reflection

This activity involved making lots of components from plastic. This included straws, plastic cups and plastic bottles. What other repurposed materials or other alternatives could be used to replace each component? Can you think of viable alternatives, with the same or similar properties, to all the plastic parts? What else might you need to change if you’re using denser or weaker materials instead? Can anyone come up with a design that’s entirely eco-friendly?

Like plastic, air travel has a bad reputation, as it’s a key contributor to our carbon footprint. Burning jet fuel for thrust creates carbon dioxide, which when released into the atmosphere can increase global warming. What are some other ways we could travel that have less carbon output? If flying’s unavoidable, how could you make up for the carbon emissions from the flight? A clue: some organisms like to eat carbon dioxide!

Safety

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.

Scissors

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

Sharp objects

Teach young people how to use sharp objects safely. Supervise them appropriately throughout. Store all sharp objects securely, out of the reach of young people.

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.