The Aerodynamic (Winter) Olympics

I was talking with a friend of mine the other day who is also an aerospace engineer, and he made a very true statement. He said that much more than the Summer Olympics, the Winter Olympics is all about aerodynamics.  Even though I have blogged about the use of aerospace technology in the Summer Olympics, the use of aerospace technology, and especially aerodynamics, is even more important during the Winter games. In many of the sports, the difference between gold and bronze is usually hundredths of a second. At this level, the athletic prowess of the top athletes are so comparable that it is usually the one with the best technology, including aerodynamics, that winds up standing on the podium. Wind tunnel testing has lead to refinements in bobsleds, luge and skeleton equipment, along with the slick race suits all the skiers (cross-country and alpine) and speed skaters wear. Wind tunnel testing has also been used to “fine tune” the body position of alpine skiers as they rocket down the slopes. Generally the higher the speed of the Winter Olympic sport, the more important is the aerodynamics. This is especially true of the downhill alpine event and the bobsled, both events where speeds in excess of 80 mph are common. But the winter sport that has seen the biggest advancements due to aerodynamics is ski jumping. Ski jumpers use to jump with their skis parallel. But back in the 80’s, wind tunnel testing revealed that a V-shaped position of the skis produced greater aero lift, longer flight times, and thus greater jump distances. Also, watch closely during the slow motion video of the jumpers and you can see how they make small movements of their hands to adjust their flight path. They are using their hands just like a rudder or ailerons on an aircraft to control the yaw and roll of their body. I’m sure these techniques were also refined in the wind tunnel to give ski jumpers the best chance of taking home a medal.