It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s the Science of Olympic Ski Jumpers
Flying down a ramp at speeds over 60 miles per hour, jumping off the edge, gliding through the air and then landing two football fields away is what Olympic ski jumpers do everyday.
Ski jumping requires a complex manipulation of forces – gravity, drag and lift.
A ski jumper has two contradictory missions with two very different positions. One is to get down the ramp or inrun as fast as possible, gaining maximum speed. The second is to takeoff into the air and fly as far as possible.
As a ski jumper hurdles down the inrun, they try to gain speed. The air around them creates resistance. To minimize the drag, a skier needs to be in a streamlined position – chest parallel to the snow, head down and arms back.
When the skier reaches take off, their body needs to readjust and change position. In a tenth of a second, the skier straightens upward and leans forward to maximize lift. Once in the air, the skier isn’t concerned with drag, but is instead working to use the air to lift and carry them like a glider.
They catch the air by putting their skis in a V-formation. The V-formation is the biggest change to ski jumping in 20 years. The old school skiers kept their skis parallel and directly under them.
By separating and putting the skis in a V, the skier gets 30% more lift. The higher air pressure under the skis pushes upward and has a wider surface area on which to act. It’s the force of the air on the base of the skis and skier’s chest that provides the lift.
Whichever skier minimizes drag and maximizes lift will make it to the podium and get as close as a human being will ever get to flying.
Get more information from NBCOlympics.com and the National Science Foundation. Lesson plan available on The Variables of Ski Jumping at NBCLearn.com.