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History and Forces of Flight Lesson

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I am a Christian. I was an 8th-grade American History teacher. I am currently a freelance writer, public speaker, & homeschooling mom of 9.


This is part 4 of a 5 part hands-on unit study on Floating & Flying. Learn about the history of flight from the time of the Greeks through present day. Design and redesign foam fliers, balloon jets, parachutes, drag-chutes, and more as you examine the relationship between flying, thrust, and drag! My lessons are geared toward 4th-5th grade level children and their siblings. These are lessons I created to do with a weekly homeschool co-op. We meet each week for 2 1/2 hours and have 16 children between the ages of 1-13. Use these fun lessons with your classroom, family, after school program, camp, or co-op!


The History of Flight: Flops, Failures, and Finally Flying

1. Pray. Read & discuss Isaiah 40:28-31.

2. Present "The History of Flight: Flops, Failures, and Finally Flying." My oldest 2 children sat behind a table that had been covered by a sheet and held up pictures (and occasionally added sound effects) as I talked through the history of flight. Below you will find what I said along with the links to the pictures that we showed. The sound effects/words my sons said are underlined below. If you would prefer, you could simply read a book on the history of flight instead of doing this "performance." *If you would prefer to instead read a book to introduce the history of flight, I would recommend How People Learned to Fly (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2) by Fran Hodgkins.

YOU WILL NEED: pictures (Click on the below links to see the ones that we used.)

  • Picture: First Flight Picture

    The flight of an airplane which took place on December 17, 1903 did not just suddenly happen as a random event. Since the beginning of the world people have probably been day dreaming of flying with the birds.

  • Picture: Daedalus

    Greek mythology tells of the tragic end of Icarus. In order to escape from an island, Daedalus fashioned wings, using feathers held together by wax. He warned his son (Icarus) not to fly too close to the sun for its heat would melt the wax and disaster would follow. Icarus did not obey his father and fell to his death. [Have Icarus say, "I'm flying! I'm flying!" and then yell, "Ahh" followed by "splash." The story of Daedalus and Icarus was a myth, only a story, but some men really did think they could fly.

  • Pictures: Chinese Kite Flying & Wan Hu

    The famous explorer, Marco Polo, told stories of kites made by the Chinese which were large enough to carry a man. Another attempt at flying was using rockets like what we use on the Fourth of July. A Chinese man named Wan Hu strapped 47 rockets to a chair, had 47 of his servants light them all at the same time, and, well, ["BANG!"], Wan Hu was never heard from again.

  • Picture: Flying Monk

    In Europe men tried strapping cloth and feathers to their backs. They would jump off towers, flap their wings, and fall like a rock. Most of them died. ["SPLAT"] In 1490 a man named Danti climbed a tower in Perugia, Italy. Far below many people watched as he leaped off a tower. The wind caught his wings and for a few seconds he glided. Then his left wing broke and he crashed to the ground. He was badly hurt, but he was the first European man to successfully create wings that would help a man to fly.

  • Pictures: Ornithopter, Flying Machine, & Parachute

    Danti wasn't the only Italian man with successful ideas. Leonardo da Vinci studied the way birds flew. He made flying models that rose all by themselves. They worked the same way as present day helicopters. He watched leaves fall to the ground and designed a parachute, though he was never able to build a full-scale model. When he died in 1519, he left many drawings of contraptions that would help men to fly, but his drawings were hidden for hundreds of years.

  • Picture: Archimedes

    Before we can continue, we must mention the work and writings of Archimedes, 300 B.C. ["EUREKA!"] He made many discoveries about buoyancy, and many of his concepts are the same ones that were later used to develop hot air balloons. This sets the stage for the entrance of the brothers Montgolfier.

  • Picture: Montgolfier

    In 1781 a new discovery was made. In France lived 2 brothers, Joseph & Etienne Montgolfier. They noticed how underwear rose above a fire as it was drying. If this force could be contained in a bag, would it not lift things? In June of 1783 the brothers, in full view of the public, launched a paper-lined hot air balloon. It floated up to a height of six thousand feet and landed a mile away. They continued experimenting. One time a balloon landed in farmers' fields. They thought it was a monster, so they ran for axes and pitchforks. They cut the balloon to pieces. Finally the brothers settled on a design and added a basket underneath the balloon. The basket carried 3 animals: a sheep, a duck and a rooster. We're not sure of their exact responses, but it may have sounded something like, ["Quack! Baa! Cock-a-doodle-doo!"] This was the first time living things that could not fly were able to fly. Now flight was deemed safe for humans.

  • Picture: Sir George Cayley

    Our skies are not filled with balloons but they are filled with airplanes, so we must go back to the days of Sir George Cayley (1796-1855) who earned the title of "The Father of Aerial Navigation". His contributions to the field of aviation were many.

  • Picture:Alphonse Penaud

    In 1872, Alphonse Penaud designed the toy helicopter which one Milton Wright purchased and presented to his sons, Wilbur & Orville, in the fall of 1878.

  • Picture: Otto Lillienthal

    Otto Lillienthal (1848-1896) concentrated on how birds control their flight. Lillienthal used what he had learned to create the hang glider. He learned to control flight by shifting his body, as the birds do, while in flight. He made over 2000 flights, but during one tragic flight, his hang glider stalled and he fell to his death from a height of 50 feet. ["AHHH!"] News of his death sparked two men, who ran a bicycle shop, in America into action. Their last name was Wright.

  • Pictures: Wright Brothers & Kitty Hawk Flight

    Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville (1871-1948) Wright, were two men who ran a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. When they were young boys they became "turned on to flight" by their father, Milton, who had purchased the toy helicopter, designed by Alphonse Penaud. The news of Lillienthal's tragic death triggered a renewed interest in flight in them after they became adults. They searched everywhere for information which could help them learn about flight and flying. They armed themselves with all of the information of the day and then went to work to make that first flight possible. On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers showed the world that they could make and fly an airplane. Indeed, men could finally fly.

  • Picture: World War II

    Soon afterward came WWI and WWII during which planes took on a vital role, and many countries sought out ways to improve the technology of the airplanes and even space flight. The rest is history.

  • Picture: Space Shuttle

(Some of this information came from

Book for activity 2


The Four Forces of Flight

3. Review what we learned last week about air pressure, Bernoulli, & the Four Forces of Flight. Review “The Four Forces of Flight.” Have children act out the four forces:

Lift: The upward force that is created by the movement of air above and below a wing. Air flows faster above the wing and slower below the wing, creating a difference in pressure that tends to keep an airplane flying. [Have children raise up their arms and say, "lift."]

Gravity: The force that pulls all objects towards the earth. [Have children lower their arms and say, "gravity."]

Thrust: The force that moves a plane forward through the air. Thrust is created by a propeller or a jet engine. [Have children push their arms forward and say, "thrust."]

Drag: The air resistance that tends to slow the forward movement of an airplane. [Have children pull their arms back and say, "drag."]

Four Forces of Flight Demo Video Clip

Thrust & Control Surfaces

4. Mention that thrust = the force that moves a plane forward through the air. Thrust is created by a propeller or a jet engine. Thrust is the force that moves a plane through the air. Airplanes, including even the Foam Flyer we'll be making, use a variety of "control surfaces" to change the speed and direction in which they fly. Have children say, "control surfaces." Hold a model of an airplane (or a picture from a book) and point out the control surfaces:

Ailerons-movable sections, hinged on the rear edge of the wing near the wingtip, that cause the airplane to roll

Flaps-movable sections, hinged on the rear of the wing, that can be lowered to increase lift and drag during takeoff or landing

Stabilizer-the vertical stabilizer is the upright portion of the airplane tail, while the horizontal stabilizer is the small wing usually located on the back of the airplane.

Scroll to Continue

YOU WILL NEED: a model of an airplane (or a picture from a book) and point out the control surfaces


Foam Flyer

5. Foam Flyer: Give each child the materials: a foam paper plate, scissors, masking tape, large paper clips, rubber bands, straws, pens, & rulers. Tell the children to fold back the bendable part of the straw and insert the rubber band into the fold. Fold the straw over the rubber band and secure the end with masking tape. This creates the launcher for the flyer. Instruct children to cut a triangle out of the foam plate from the flat inverted side of the plate. An equilateral triangle might work best for the shape. A good size to start with is 13 cm x 13 cm x 13 cm (or 5"x5"x5").*We will be using the leftover foam pieces later, so don't toss them out! Tape the paper clip to the front of the foam wings to add some weight. Then, tape the foam flyer over the paperclip so that it extends slightly over the tip.

YOU WILL NEED per child: 1 foam plate, scissors, masking tape, large paper clip, rubber band, bendable straw, pen, & ruler


Launching the Foam Flyer

6. Take the children outside to the "launching area" outside, or go to a large room without breakable items. Instruct each group on how to launch their foam flyer: Hook the rubber band around the tip of your thumb and pull back on the opposite end of the flyer. Release the straw and the flyer will fly forward. Call each group forward, one at a time, to launch their flyers. Each child should launch the flyer using two different amounts of thrust. They should first pull the nose of the flyer halfway to their elbow and let it fly. Next, they should pull the nose of the flyer all the way to their elbow and let it fly. The group should observe the changes in their flyer's flight and distance.

7. Discuss: Does the amount of thrust affect the Foam Flyer's flight? What other factors affect how your flyer flew? What did you observe when using different amounts of thrust to launch your Foam Flyer? Why was your flyer successful or unsuccessful? How does the thrust of the Foam Flyer compare to the thrust of a real airplane?


Redesign the Foam Fliers

8. Have the children cut wing flaps and ailerons into the back of the foam wings. Mention that balloons drift with the wind, but planes can turn in different directions and climb and dive because they have movable panels on their wings and tail called control surfaces. A glider has ailerons or movable flaps on its wings. These help the glider to tilt, bank, and turn. If you add a strip to the rear of the glider's fin (tail), this control surface is called a rudder. Children can also alter the weight of the flyer by adding weight behind the wings with tape or paper clips. They can use the leftover foam plate parts to add stabilizers and rudders. They can change the size of the foam wings. A few things to mention while the children are redesigning their foam fliers include:

- Real gliders have very long, narrow wings.

- Ailerons are control surfaces at the rear of the wing tips. They change the flow of air to make one tip rise and the other fall slightly. This makes the glider bank to one side and so its path tends to curve or turn around in a circle. The more the ailerons are angled, the steeper the bank and the tighter the turn.

- If the aileron angles downward, it changes the air flow over the airfoil shape and increases the force of lift. Also air coming off the bottom of the wing pushes on the aileron and forces it up. The combined effect is to raise the wing tip so the plane tilts or banks away from that side. With the aileron pointing up, the reverse happens and the wing tip is lowered.

- Depending upon the way the rudder is bent in relation to the ailerons, it can help the glider turn more tightly.

YOU WILL NEED: extra paperclips


Launching Redesigned Foam Fliers

9. After children have redesigned their foam fliers, take them back outside to test them again. After the first launch, allow them to make adjustments to their ailerons and rudders (bending them in different directions), and then have them launch them one last time.

10. Ask, "How differently did the Foam Flyer fly after modifications were made to the ailerons, flaps, stabilizers or rudder?" Show the children a few of the foam flyers that made impressive flights (distance, loops, etc.) and ask the children what changes in the design helped to make the foam flyer fly do what it did.

Some photos on this page were taken by one of the mothers in our co-op class who operates Michelle Harrison Photography.

Some photos on this page were taken by one of the mothers in our co-op class who operates Michelle Harrison Photography.

Balloon Jets

11. Remind children that thrust is the force created by a power source that moves the plane forward - either from a propeller or a jet engine. When the thrust is greater than the drag, a plane moves forward. The activity we are about to do demonstrates Sir Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. A jet engine uses this principle by taking in air, a gas, on one side, energizing it by compression and rapid expansion, and using that energy to create a reaction, namely thrust out the opposite side. The balloon we will use will simulate the idea of compression and thrust, or rapid expansion. This experiment also shows the efficiency a jet engine has by channeling all the reactive energy in one pointed direction. Backward thrust of the air from the balloon produces the forward motion of the balloon.

12. Go outside (or to a large room), bringing the scissors & scotch tape with you. Designate 1 child (Child #3) in each group to be the balloon blower. Have the other children thread a fishing line through a straw. Have Child #1 & Child #2 work as string holders. They will stand at the designated starting & stopping places. They will stand on either side of the string to hold it taut. Child #3 will inflate the balloon, pinch off the end of the balloon so that no air is released, and use scotch tape to tape it to the straw. Then s/he will release hi/her hold on the balloon. Child #4 will work with Child #3 to use the tape measure to measure how far the balloon jet went. Child #4 will record the measurement on a sheet of paper. (If you are short on time or working with younger children, you can skip the step on measuring how far the balloon jet went. The difference in its movement with and without drag will be obvious without the measurements.)

YOU WILL NEED: balloon (sausage-shaped works best - but check if you can blow them up first because some are close to impossible to blow up. Regular balloons will work too), straws, spool of fishing line or yarn, scotch tape, writing utensil, tape measure, and paper

Optional Book on Newton's Laws to use for activity 11


Changing Flight Patterns

13. Rotate the positions so that each child gets a turn to let go of the balloon jet BUT keep the balloon blower consistent. The below 3 alterations do not need to have their distances measured. Just have the children eyeball the difference in distance.

- One time tell the line holders to have 1 child hold his/her end of the string above his/her head and the other child squat down on the ground so that the line is angled.

- One time tell the line holders to give the line some slack and have it not be as taut. Tell them to experiment with how taut the line is and the angle of the line.

- One time tell the balloon blower to not blow the balloon up as much.

*Tell the children that we are going to make alterations to our balloon jets, so keep them in good condition.

14. Discuss: "What forces caused the Balloon Jet travel forward? What else affected the distance a Balloon Jet would travel?"


Drag & Balloon Jets

15. Ask the children what 4 forces act upon an aircraft (lift, gravity, thrust, and drag). The opposing forces balance each other. Ask, "What equals out thrust?" (drag) Ask, "What equals out lift?" (gravity). Tell the children that we will now study the force of drag = the air resistance that tends to slow the forward movement of an airplane. Drag is the force that acts against the forward movement of an airplane and slows it down. All moving objects experience drag. Let's see how drag can affect airplanes by seeing how it affects our balloon jets.

16. Pass out a paper plate to each group. Have them repeat the balloon jet activity; however, this time have them tape a paper plate to the front of the jet. (Be sure the plate does not get caught on line). Have the children use the tape measure to measure how far the jet went with the paper plate on the front, and write the distance down on the sheet of paper. Then allow each additional child to cut a bit off the paper plate, tape it to the front of the balloon, and let the balloon jet go. Those distances don't need to be measured. Just have the children eyeball the differences in the distance. After everyone has had a chance to release the jet with drag, compare the results.

YOU WILL NEED: paper plates (8-1/2" diameter), tape, & scissors

17. Go back inside. Ask, "Which jet went a shorter distance? Why? Why is it important for an aircraft to have less drag? How are aircraft designed to overcome drag? Would weight affect the flight of your jet in the same way?


Aeronautical Engineers & Parachutes

18. Aeronautical engineers design objects that move above ground through the atmosphere such as airplanes, parachutes, helicopters, etc. They differ from aerospace engineers in that they only design crafts that stay within the earth's atmosphere. Aeronautical engineers design parachutes. Parachutes are designed to slow the fall of a person from the air to the ground to prevent death or injury. Parachutes are designed to use air resistance, or drag, to counteract the weight of the person being "pulled" toward the ground by gravity. Drag is the force opposite the motion of an object through a fluid (in this case air). The more exposed material the parachute has, the more air resistance will be created. By increasing the surface area of a parachute, one can decrease velocity by increasing drag. Tell the children that they are going to each design a parachute. The goal is to create a parachute with the slowest velocity. Tell everyone to say, "velocity." Ask the children if they know what velocity is. Explain that velocity has to do with the speed of an object. Velocity can be measured by knowing the distance an object travels in a certain amount of time. The equation for velocity, or how to determine velocity is distance / time. When you're floating down through the sky in a parachute, you want to decrease your velocity. You don't want to dart through the air or you'll die or get badly injured. Who remembers how to decrease your velocity? (a parachute) What is the best type of parachute? (a large one) By increasing the surface area of a parachute, one can decrease velocity by increasing drag.

19. Give each child 3 feet of string, 1 coffee filter, 1 paper napkin, 1 plastic grocery store bag, 1 army man, and scissors. Tell them to use the scissors on the string and to poke holes in the parachute if needed. They will not want to make their parachute material smaller. Explain that they may select 2 of the 3 materials (coffee filter, napkin, and grocery store bag) to construct 2 prototypes of parachutes that they will compare. Remind them to choose the two materials they believe will make the best parachutes (i.e. have the slowest velocity). Have scotch tape available as well if they would like to use that to mend holes. Remind them that the tape will add weight, so it will increase the velocity of the parachute. (You can see examples of parachutes on p. 14 of the pdf file found at

YOU WILL NEED: (per child) 3 feet of string, 1 coffee filter, 1 paper napkin, 1 plastic grocery store bag, 1 army man, scissors, and scotch tape


Testing the Prototypes & Determining Velocity

20. Testing the prototypes. Once your group is finished (even if other groups aren't), take the children outside to the playground set OR have them stand on something tall like a ladder. Bring your tape measure, stopwatch, writing utensil, and paper. Have them get as high as they can and then drop their two parachute prototype parachutes at the same time. Children's height will have an effect on this, so have your shortest child go first. Determine from where that child drops their parachutes, and have the other children try to drop theirs from a similar distance. You, the mom, can use your stopwatch to determine the descent or how long each parachute takes to drop to the ground.

YOU WILL NEED: stopwatch, tape measure, writing utensil, and paper.

21. After everyone has gone, use the slowest time out of everyone's to determine velocity. Ask the children to remind you of how to calculate velocity. (distance/time). We know the time is ____. What else do we need to determine? (distance) Give 2 of the children the tape measure and have them measure the distance that the parachutes dropped. Write that down. Have the children calculate the approximate velocity. We will compare the "winning" parachutes inside, so remind the children to keep them in good shape. If your group finishes earlier than most of the other groups, they can watch the other groups. If your group is one of the last to go, have them go inside.

22. Write the velocity of your group's winning design on a sheet of paper. Have the child who designed that parachute with the slowest velocity stand in the front of the group. Place the children in order from fastest to slowest velocity and have them each tell everyone what material they used for their parachute and what their velocity was. Ask all of the children, "Which material was the most effective?" and then ask them, "What other factors might have affected the parachutes' velocity?" (Think about length of string, the cross sectional area of the chute, whether the parachute fell in straight or crooked path, etc.) Also ask, "How does a parachute create drag for a falling object?"


Drag Chutes

23. Now we will feel the force of drag. Airplanes are designed to be sleek so that drag is reduced, allowing easier movement through the air. Divide your group into the older 2 children and the younger 2 children. Give each pair of children a large garbage bag "drag-chute." Have them cut along one side and the bottom of the bag. This will make one flat sheet. Make sure the seams are solid with no holes! Have them roll up their "drag-cute" to make it like a rope.

YOU WILL NEED: large, heavy-duty garbage bags & scotch tape (if needed)

24. Take the children outside. Have the two oldest children run from the starting line, side by side, holding the drag-chute that is rolled up between them. (All the older children will run at the same time.) You, the mom, will need to time your pair and then write the time down on a sheet of paper. Then have the youngest 2 children run from the starting line, side by side, holding the drag-chute that is rolled up between them. (All the younger children will run at the same time.) Again, record the time of your pair. Now have the oldest 2 children go again, but this time have them open up their drag chute. Record the time. Have the younger 2 children go while the hold the drag chute open. Record the time. As you go inside, tell the children their times.

YOU WILL NEED: stop watch, writing utensil, & paper.

25. Ask, "What was it like running with the drag-chute closed compared to when it was open? What force caused you to slow down? Do you think a larger drag-chute would cause you to run even slower? Why? How are airplanes designed to keep the force of drag in mind?"

26. Review what we learned today.

(Most of the activity ideas from today came from the great lesson plan found at

Our Favorite Book on the Wright Brothers

More of Our Favorite Books on the Wright Brothers

We read MANY wonderful books on the Wright Brothers. These were our favorites. My Brothers' Flying Machine: Wilbur, Orville, and Me by Jane Yolen includes the little-know contributions of the Wright brothers' sister, Katherine. First Flight: The Story of Tom Tate and the Wright Brothers (I Can Read Level 4) by George Shea is told from the perspective of a boy who assisted the Wright Brothers in Kitty Hawk. It also makes a great reader if you have a child who needs to practice reading. We love intermingling various subjects and incorporating books that are related to our unit studies into phonics time. Into the Air: The Story of the Wright Brothers' First Flight by Robert Burleigh is written in a comic book style yet is filled with great information on the trials and triumphs of the Wright Brothers. Similar to this book in comic book format (and just as good) is The Wright Brothers and the Airplane by Xavier Niz. We also enjoyed Wee and the Wright Brothers by Gaffney, The Wondrous Whirligig: The Wright Brothers' First Flying Machine by Andrew Glass, and The Value of Patience: The Tale of the Wright Brothers (The New ValueTales Series, Volume 10).

Did you know that many people do not consider the Wright Brothers to be the first people to invent airplane?

Our Favorite Books on the History of Flight

These were our favorite books that gave a nice overview of the history of flight, mainly leading up to the Wright Brothers. Flying by Gail Gibbons presents a brief history of flight, from balloons to more sophisticated means of air transportation such as helicopters, jet planes, and shuttles. Into the Air: An Illustrated Timeline of Flight by Ryan Ann Hunter is good if you skip the first section on "prehistoric flying creatures." It has beautiful illustrations and it looks at the technology of flight -- flying hunting weapons, flight legends and myths, kite technology, flying experimentation, and finally human flight. Wings by Jane Yolen was our favorite version of the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus. We also enjoyed Feathers, Flaps, and Flops: Fabulous Early Fliers by Bo Zaunders.