Graham Bell Hopes To Ski At 156MPH Using Jets
Published on March 15th, 2016 | by Jordan Kierans0
THE HISTORY OF technological progress is full of early failures that were picked up by others, tweaked, and turned into successful innovations. Modern wing suits can be traced to a doomed 1912 jump off the Eiffel Tower. The preselector manual gearbox of the 1930s is back as the dual clutch transmission. Da Vinci’s helicopter idea was a few centuries ahead of its time.
Graham Bell hopes to continue this fine tradition by building upon an idea best remembered from the Looney Tunes short Freeze Frame. That’s the one where Wile E. Coyote strapped on a pair of Acme Jet-Propelled Skis in a bid to finally catch Roadrunner. Bell’s objective is different—he wants to be the fastest human on skis—but his idea’s pretty much the same. He’s basically strapping on a couple of jets and hitting the snow.
This is not entirely crazy. Bell was a downhill skier who competed in five Olympics before retiring in the late 1990s. Since then, he’s worked as a TV host and commentator, and explored different forms of his sport, including speed skiing. That’s essentially drag racing on skis: downhill, as fast as possible, in a straight line. Italy’s Simone Origone holds the world record of 156.2 mph. That’s 25 mph faster than the terminal velocity of someone thrown from a plane. Bell intends to exceed that speed, using jets.
He swears “Jetman” Yves Rossy, not Wile E. Coyote, is his inspiration. Rossy flies through the air wearing a carbon fiber wing with four small jet engines, each producing 90 pounds of thrust. “If he can do that with mini jets and fly,” Bell says, “I thought that technology could be taken and put on the snow.”
To bolster his technical expertise, Bell is working with Jaguar Land Rover (which also is sponsoring the Bloodhound SSC effort to build a 1,000-mph car). They’re at the beginning of the project, but have the basic details of a run Bell plans to make late next year. Bell will wear a pair of microjets in a harness around his waist; they’ll draw fuel from a bladder he’ll wear on his back. A deadman’s switch will control the jets, so if he falls or loses control, simply releasing the control will shut off the power. A Jaguar sedan will haul him up to 100 mph, at which point Bell will release the rope, fire up the jets, and prepare for the ride of his life. Just where this craziness will take place is TBD, but a frozen lake somewhere in northern Sweden is a good bet because Bell will need two miles of open snow to hit top speed and slow to a stop.
Bell considered a downhill run, but only briefly. “That for me would seem a little too far,” he says. Not that a flat run isn’t without risk. His biggest concern–after blowing himself up, presumably—is lift. Most speed skiers reduce drag as much as possible, and reply upon rely on gravity to keep their skis planted. At the speeds he’ll attempt, Bell has to worry about the risk of taking to the air. “That would be extraordinarily bad,” he says.
That’s where Jaguar’s expertise is handy. The automaker has Ian Anderton, its top aerodynamicist, helping Bell. A key task is generating enough downforce to keep Bell solidly in the snow. Anderton is kicking around an idea for a racing suit with “Iron Man-style winglets” that will work something like the aileron on an airplane wing, letting Bell control himself through minor adjustments to his posture. If he’s hit by a gust of wind or starts to lose balance, he can shift an arm or a leg to regain stability. Anderton and Bell don’t know what that looks like just yet, but Bell will spend a lot of time in the wind tunnel as the project moves forward.
Beyond that, he says, he’s got to maintain his strength, and maybe lose a few pounds. Not to mention hold on to his courage.