IN MIDAIR: Sydney Kennett is a three-time U.S. junior national champion in the sport of indoor skydiving.

MICHAEL ROSS CUNNINGHAM

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: PS2.A

CCSS: Literacy in Science: 9

TEKS: 6.8B, 7.2E, 8.6A, P.2H, P.2I

Fly Girl

Meet a teen athlete who harnesses the power of physics to perform amazing aerial feats

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT the forces acting on a person’s body when they skydive.

Wind rushes past Syndey Kennett as she soars above the ground, spinning and twisting through the air. The 15-year-old is a competitive skydiver, even though she’s never jumped out of a plane. Instead, she takes flight indoors with the help of a specialized tunnel designed to mimic the experience of skydiving—no parachute required.

Sydney, who lives in Colorado, is one of the world’s most accomplished athletes in the fastgrowing sport of indoor skydiving, also known as bodyflight. Competitors perform stunts inside a wind tunnel, a big tube with fans that create powerful jets of air (see Test Tunnels). The facility allows Sydney to mimic the physics of flight, with jaw-dropping results.

Sydney Kennett soars above the ground. Wind rushes past her as she spins and twists through the air. The 15-year-old is a competitive skydiver. But she’s never jumped out of a plane. Instead, she takes flight indoors with help from a specialized tunnel that imitates the experience of skydiving. She doesn’t even need a parachute. 

Sydney lives in Colorado. She’s one of the world’s most skilled indoor skydiving athletes. This fast-growing sport is also known as bodyflight. Athletes perform stunts inside a big tube called a wind tunnel. It has fans that create powerful jets of air (see Test Tunnels). The tunnel allows Sydney to imitate the physics of skydiving, with jaw-dropping results.

A FAMILY TRADITION

Sydney first flew in a wind tunnel at age 4. Her dad, Andrew—an experienced outdoor skydiver—was excited to share his love of flying. That first experience is a little hazy in her memory, but her next one, at age 8, was unforgettable. “I had the time of my life,” she says.

Flying in the tunnel “feels kind of like you’re in The Matrix,” says Sydney. In the sci-fi movie, characters in a computer simulation bend the laws of physics to perform feats that would ordinarily be impossible. In the tunnel, says Sydney, “I let go of all my worries and just fly.”

Sydney first flew in a wind tunnel at age 4. Her dad, Andrew, is an experienced outdoor skydiver. He was excited to share his love of flying. She doesn’t remember that first experience very well. But she’ll never forget her next one, at age 8. “I had the time of my life,” she says.

Flying in the tunnel “feels kind of like you’re in The Matrix,” says Sydney. In the sci-fi movie, characters are in a computer simulation. They bend the laws of physics to perform impossible feats. In the tunnel, “I let go of all my worries and just fly,” says Sydney.

EWAN COWIE PHOTOGRAPHY

TAKE TWO: Sydney (left) and a teammate perform a two-person flight, an event known as “dynamic” in competition.

Shortly after her second flight, Sydney joined an after-school flight program for kids. Soon she started participating in bodyflight competitions. In her main event, called freestyle, athletes complete a few required moves, including barrel rolls, twists, and splits, plus an artistic routine of their own choreography. Judges assess the difficulty of the routine and how well the athlete executes it. The judging is similar to gymnastics, a sport Sydney’s mom, Michelle, competed in. Sydney is grateful she can rely on both her parents’ expertise to help develop her routines.

Sydney quickly soared to the top of her field. In her first world championship, at age 12, she earned a bronze medal in junior freestyle. More recently, she set a Guinness Record for the most spins while doing a split in a wind tunnel in one minute (68 of them!). She took the top junior freestyle prize at the 2020 global Wind Games and was ranked as the U.S. Indoor Skydiving junior freestyle national champion three years in a row.

Shortly after her second flight, Sydney joined an after-school flight program for kids. Soon she started taking part in bodyflight competitions. Her main event is called freestyle. Athletes must complete certain moves, including barrel rolls, twists, and splits. They also perform an artistic routine that they created. Judges consider the difficulty of the routine and how well the athlete performs it. Gymnastics has a similar judging process. Sydney’s mom, Michelle, competed in that sport. Sydney is grateful for expert help on her routines from both of her parents.

Sydney quickly soared to the top of her field. At age 12, she competed in her first world championship. She earned a bronze medal in junior freestyle. More recently, she set a Guinness World Record. It was for the most spins while doing a split in a wind tunnel in one minute. (She did 68!). She took the top junior freestyle prize at the 2020 global Wind Games. And three years in a row, she was ranked as the U.S. Indoor Skydiving junior freestyle national champion.

FLIGHT DYNAMICS

In an indoor skydiving tunnel, large fans pull air upward, from the ground toward the ceiling, allowing a person inside to hover above the ground as the wind rushes past (see Artificial Wind). This simulates what a traditional skydiver experiences while falling.

After a skydiver leaps out of an airplane, two opposing forces dominate their motion, says Narit Pidokrajt, a physicist at the University of Skövde in Sweden and an avid skydiver. Gravity pulls the skydiver toward the ground, rapidly accelerating them toward Earth. This force runs the show—at first. As the skydiver’s body speeds up, it collides with more and more air molecules. This increases the force of air resistance, or drag, pushing upward against their body, and the skydiver’s acceleration slows.

In an indoor skydiving tunnel, large fans pull air upward, from the ground toward the ceiling. A person inside can hover above the ground as the wind rushes past (see Artificial Wind). This re-creates the experience of a falling skydiver.

After a skydiver leaps from an airplane, two opposing forces control their motion, says Narit Pidokrajt. He’s a physicist at the University of Skövde in Sweden, and he loves skydiving. Gravity pulls the skydiver down. It quickly accelerates them toward Earth. This force runs the show—at first. As the skydiver’s body speeds up, it hits more and more air molecules. This increases the force of air resistance, or drag. This force pushes upward against their body, and the skydiver’s acceleration slows.

BELARUSIAN FEDERATION OF AIR SPORTS

TRICKY MOVES: Flying head down is considered more difficult, so usually only experienced indoor skydivers use upside-down positions.

Eventually, Pidokrajt explains, “gravity and air resistance balance out.” During this portion of the jump, the skydiver falls at a constant speed, known as terminal velocity. This final speed depends on the person’s mass and drag, which varies with body shape, posture, and suit type. A typical skydiver falling belly down might hit 200 kilometers (120 miles) per hour. Competitive speed skydivers, who fly head down, have recorded speeds of more than 500 km (311 mi) per hour. As a skydiver nears the ground, they deploy a parachute. This increases air resistance and slows them to a safe speed for landing.

Finally, “gravity and air resistance balance out,” explains Pidokrajt. During this part of the jump, the skydiver falls at a constant speed. It’s known as terminal velocity. This final speed depends on the person’s mass and drag. That changes with body shape, posture, and suit type. A typical skydiver falls belly down. They might hit 200 kilometers (120 miles) per hour. Competitive speed skydivers fly head down. They’ve recorded speeds of more than 500 km (311 mi) per hour. As a skydiver nears the ground, they deploy a parachute. This increases air resistance and slows the skydiver to a safe landing speed.

INTO THE TUNNEL

The fans in a wind tunnel generate a constant wind speed, so when Sydney hops in, she’s flying at terminal velocity right away. Airflow can be adjusted for an athlete’s mass and preferences: Sydney tends to fly at around 200 km (120 mi) per hour. When she holds her body in certain stable positions, such as flat on her belly, she hovers in midair, with gravity and air resistance in perfect balance.

By adjusting her posture, Sydney changes the amount of surface area exposed to the wind. That alters the balance between air resistance and gravity, allowing her to fly up or down inside the tunnel. If she wants to drop lower, she might pull in her arms and legs while keeping her body straight, or hug her knees to form a cannonball. “Creating a smaller surface area reduces air resistance,” says Pidokrajt. As this upward force weakens, gravity takes over, and “she falls in a controlled manner.”

The fans in a wind tunnel create a constant wind speed. So when Sydney hops in, she’s flying at terminal velocity right away. Airflow can be adjusted for an athlete’s mass and preference. Sydney tends to fly at around 200 km (120 mi) per hour. To hover in midair, she holds her body in certain stable positions, such as flat on her belly. Then gravity and air resistance are in perfect balance.

Sydney can adjust her posture to change the amount of surface area exposed to the wind. That changes the balance between air resistance and gravity. It allows her to fly up or down inside the tunnel. To drop lower, she might pull in her arms and legs and keep her body straight. Or she can hug her knees to form a cannonball. “Creating a smaller surface area reduces air resistance,” says Pidokrajt. This upward force decreases, and gravity takes over. Then “she falls in a controlled manner,” he says.

EWAN COWIE PHOTOGRAPHY

DYNAMIC DUO: Sydney (left) has also won top rankings in pairs events.

Extending her limbs or arching her body into an upsidedown- U shape helps Sydney catch more wind, increasing air resistance. That can slow or stop a descent, or even allow the wind pushing against her to generate lift. This upward force can overcome gravity, pushing Sydney higher into the air. Subtle movements that increase drag on specific sections of her body allow her to flip, spin, fly in a loop, and right herself.

To catch more wind, Sydney extends her limbs or arches her body into an upside-down-U shape. Then air resistance increases. That can slow or stop a fall. It can even allow the wind to create lift as it pushes against her. This upward force can overcome gravity and push Sydney higher. Small movements increase drag on different areas of her body. Then she can flip, spin, fly in a loop, and right herself.

When a skydiver jumps outdoors, they might spend only 30 to 60 seconds at terminal velocity, depending on their starting altitude. Eventually, they get close to the ground and have to land. Indoor skydivers don’t face those same constraints, but short stints in the tunnel are all Sydney needs to master her routines. She completes two 15-minute flight sessions per week.

Outside the tunnel, Sydney stays in top form by lifting weights, riding a dirt bike, and tumbling on a trampoline, topped off by a lot of stretching to maintain flexibility. She’s currently adapting some of her favorite rotational flight moves to spin or twist in the opposite direction—plus developing a few totally new tricks. This month, she’s preparing for the national championship competition in El Paso, Texas. Sydney looks forward to every moment of flying for the sheer joy of defying gravity: “It just makes me super happy,” she says.

When a skydiver jumps outdoors, they might spend only 30 to 60 seconds at terminal velocity. That depends on their starting height. Then they get close to the ground and have to open a parachute for landing. Indoor skydivers don’t face those same limits. But Sydney needs only short periods in the tunnel to master her routines. She does two 15-minute flight sessions per week.

Outside the tunnel, Sydney works to stay in top form. She lifts weights, rides a dirt bike, and tumbles on a trampoline. She also stretches a lot to stay flexible. Right now, she’s working on some of her favorite spinning flight moves. She’s adjusting them to spin or twist in the opposite direction. She’s also developing a few totally new tricks. This month, she’s preparing for the national championship competition in El Paso, Texas. Sydney looks forward to every moment of flying for the sheer joy of defying gravity. “It just makes me super happy,” she says. 

EVALUATING INFORMATION: How are indoor and outdoor skydiving similar? How are they different? Compare and contrast the two.

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