Mountain Rescue!

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Learners investigate variables of a balsa wood glider (including launch, payload location, and ability to overcome headwind) in order to design a glider that is well-suited for making it to an isolated community in distress due to a natural disaster. Students determine the feasibility of successfully reaching the community and decide whether it's safe to mount a rescue operation.

Learning Objectives

  • Students will learn that variables for flight include aircraft characteristics.
  • Students will investigate and understand the four forces that act on an aircraft: lift, drag, weight, and thrust.
  • Students will explore, experiment with, and be able to identify and demonstrate the three-dimensional rotations in flight including roll, pitch, and yaw.


For each group:

  • One balsa-wood glider(plus extra gliders in case some are damaged during testing)
  • One small-size binder clip per group for modeling a simulated payload of rescue supplies
  • One launch apparatus(or the launch apparatus can be shared by two groups)
  • Clipboard
  • Pencil

Copies for each group:


For the class

  • Indoor space for landing grid(Size of grid may vary but dimensions will remain the same: 3 columns and 3 rows composed of 9 grid cells as shown below.)
  • Three wind fans spaced uniformly near the end of the grid layout
  • Launch table positioned near the front-end and center of the grid layout
  • String
  • Scissors
  • Permanent marker
  • Masking tape

Landing grid example showing nine boxes. The boxes in the first row are labeled C -1, C 0, and C +1 from left to right. The boxes in the second row are labeled B -1, B 0, and B +1, from left to right. The boxes in the third row are labeled A -1, A 0, and A +1, from left to right.



  • Print a copy of the Mountain Rescue Test Flight Data Recording Sheet and Mountain Rescue Mission Details document for each group.
  • Use a blade to cut a notch on the bottom of each glider’s fuselage to work with the launch apparatus
  • Create a tic-tac-toe style grid to measure each test flights’ path. The grid should look similar to the grid shown below and be located in an inside space where variables can be controlled. The grid size may be enlarged if needed, however, the dimensions must remain the same (a tic-tac-toe style grid composed of 3 rows and 3 columns).The grid size will be determined before the activity is conducted based on pre-activity flight texts and customary landing distances. Aim for at least 80 percent of the test flights landing inside one of the grid cell spaces. When test flights land outside of this area, students should record them as an "unsuccessful" test flight.
  • Cut and mark string to use for measuring. If the grid is 9 meters by 9 meters, prepare a string with measurements marked at 0, 3, 6, and 9 meters for each group.
  • Test the glider’s flight under different conditions prior to working with students. Adjust the grid's size if adjustments are necessary to represent typical flight paths in your given space.
  • Place a launching table in the front center of the grid, approximately 3-5 meters from where the grid begins.
  • On each launching apparatus, mark a spot from which the band tautness will be tested to launch the flights with the band at 15, 30, and 45 cm.
Safety Preparation:
  • Have each group assign a safety engineer responsible for ensuring that team members and others stand behind the launch table unless they are retrieving their glider. They should also ensure that students only launch a glider when the runway is clear.


Class 1: Exploration #1, Launch Band Position

  1. Ask students to share what they think an engineer does, and what they might do in terms of aeronautics?
  2. Show the students the video of Victoria Wilk, aerospace engineer, with Boeing, Inc. (See background information.)
  3. Tell the students that we will be engaging in aerospace engineering to solve a real-world problem
  4. Ask the students what they know about the forces that affect the flight of an aircraft. One way to do this is to draw a simple diagram of an aircraft and use arrows as they describe any of the four forces: thrust, drag, lift, and weight.If there is no engine in a plane such as with gliders and sail planes, ask them to think about what might provide thrust (e.g., the launch apparatus).
  5. Explain to the students the key concepts of thrust, drag, lift, and weight by drawing diagrams, showing animations, and asking questions that engage them in thought about these concepts.
  6. Discuss how the balsa wood planes are like real aircraft, and how they are not like aircraft.
  7. Read the challenge/empathy story aloud with students. (See student materials.) Ask them to recall what they remember from the flood of 2013 if they were in Colorado.
  8. Distribute the balsa wood gliders to each group of three learners. Have learners assemble the planes according to the directions if they have not already been preassembled.
  9. Introduce and have students complete Exploration #1. Roles within each group should include: glider launcher, recorder and safety engineer, and glider measurer and retriever. Review how the glider measurements should be recorded by listing the appropriate grid cell in which the glider lands. If the glider lands outside of the grid area, list the flight test as "Unsuccessful" on one's grid recorder sheet.
  10. Students should be encouraged to rotate roles with each of the additional test flights in subsequent classes.
  11. Leave time during the class period for each group to reflect on their Exploration's findings.

Class 2: Exploration #2, Rescue Payload Location

  1. Have learners in each group generate ideas (possible solutions) about how they could change the location of rescue supplies (small-binder clip) in their glider design to maximize their flight's success in reaching the mountain community with a long and straight flight path, modeled by successfully reaching cell "C 0". Explain that the location of the payload is the manipulated variable because they can change it. The phrase ‘long and straight flight’ in the graphic above is called the responding variable. Explain that it will be affected by the manipulated variable. The criterion for success is getting the plane to:
    1. Have the longest flight, reaching the "C" Row on the grid;
    2. Have the straightest flight, staying within the "0" column within the grid;
    3. Have the best combination of distance and straight flight path with other variables kept constant (e.g. launch band location). Pilots, therefore, are aiming to consistently land their gliders in the "C 0" grid landing cell.
  2. Have learners define the engineering problem using their own words.
  3. Have learners conduct Exploration #2 and decide the optimal location for their payload of rescue supplies using their best launch band position as determined in Exploration 1.
  4. Make sure that each group accurately reports and records the results of each test flight with the payload in the two places under consideration.
  5. Leave time during the class period for each group to reflect on their findings.

Class 3: Exploration #3, Headwind

  1. For Exploration #3, place 3 wind fans at the opposite end of the grid layout from the launch table. Set the fans at a height equal to that of the launch table height, which is likely about 1 to 1.5 meters above the ground. Secure the wind fans so that they do not tip over when they are turned on.
  2. Have students begin their test flights with the best launch band and payload locations used in conjunction with the headwind tests.
  3. Have student groups conduct a minimum of two test flights with the headwind variable per group.
  4. Ensure that each group has recorded their data.
  5. For students to determine if the rescue mission is likely to succeed or fail, the teacher should collect and compile the combined test flight data results from all of the groups' test flights during Exploration 1, 2, and 3. This information should be made available for the discussions and decision that will take place during Exploration #4.

Class 4: Data Review, Discussion, and Problem Solving: Should We Stay or Should We Go?

  1. Ask the students to determine what criteria they will use to determine if the glider should attempt to reach the mountain rescue location (as simulated by reaching cell "C 0" consistently). Should the glider have reached "C 0" 100% of the time, 90% of the time, 80%, 70%... What risk is acceptable to the students, who are serving as the flight support crew?
  2. If the glider was to fall to reach the mountain community, what would be the likely consequences to the glider and its pilot?
  3. What will be the consequences to the mountain community if the rescue mission is aborted, delayed, or augmented in any way? How might the rescue mission be augmented or changed if necessary?
  4. Hand out the compiled test flight data to the students. Based upon the criteria that they decided upon to determine if the rescue mission should proceed, what is their decision?
  5. If the flight rescue mission will be aborted, can the students think of other methods that could assist the mountain community during their time of great need?
  6. After the class has determined their plan of action, return to the real-life account of the mountain town of Gold Hill during the 2013 Boulder, Colorado flood. Ask students to research the natural disaster as well and share their own memories from the event. Show the YouTube video about the Mudslingers, a group of Boulder citizens who hiked into Gold Hill and assisted its residents following the flood for an extended period of time.
  7. Return to the importance of engineering in solving problems and in approaching methods to collect data to determine the feasibility of a solution.
  8. Reiterate the importance of the forces that act on flight and the words that describe a flight's motion. Ask students to share once again what the forces of flight are and how flight motion is described?


  • Ask students to demonstrate what is meant by the forces of flight and the various motions of flight either through sketches or by using a model aircraft.
  • Ask students to explain what is meant by thrust, drag, lift, or weight by having each group conduct and explain a short hands-on demonstration involving one of the concepts.
  • Assess how students express how the test flights impacted the launch decision and pay-load location of their glider. What might research scientists need to test before conducting some of their field campaigns using aircraft?




Related Resources



  • Teach Engineering Activity: What Makes Airplanes Fly?
    Students begin to explore the idea of a force. To further their understanding of drag, gravity, and weight, they conduct activities that model the behavior of parachutes and helicopters.