Ascending into Aviation

Myra Christensen
South Dakota Civil Air Patrol
STEM SAVVY Teen Science Café


Since the Wright brothers first launched into the air, aviation has been a fascinating mix of complex physics and pure wonder. From entertainment to travel, the power of flight has shaped the world. To help us untangle the mysteries of flight, we invited Myra Christensen, a mission pilot for Civil Air Patrol.
While they snacked on airheads, students started with the basics; paper airplanes. It may seem simple, but paper airplanes perfectly showcase many of the same laws of physics that normal airplanes do. Later on, the students would add much needed upgrades to the planes.

After a brief intermission for pasta, salad, and bread, the students were ready to sit down with Myra and learn. One major part of Myra’s job as a Civil Air Patrol pilot is Search and Rescue. Having eyes in the sky to look for lost people or crashed planes is important, especially in South Dakota. Myra demonstrated this by showing the students pictures of South Dakota wilderness and asked the students to identify the plane or person in the picture.

Hands on Activity

To help find missing people and downed planes, Myra utilizes a black box, which is a device required in planes that help Search and Rescue locate them. Myra hid the black box and gave three students a different version of a locator. Every few seconds, the black box would send out a signal that the locators would detect, leading the students to it.
Because Myra does Search and Rescue from an airplane, knowing how one works is very important. She explained how airplanes are designed to manage drag, lift, and thrust- three physics principles that are caused by air. She explained important parts of airplanes like the ailerons, which control balance, and rudders, which help with steering.

To put this new knowledge to the test, Myra had the students grab their previously made paper airplanes and showed them how to add rudders and ailerons. Three fans had been set up to show the difference between the updated planes and the normal ones. The students found that the new upgrades allowed the planes to fly higher and longer !