Lockheed Martin is widely known for supersonic warplanes such as the F-35, F-22 and the F-16. Now the defense giant’s high-flying expertise is also on display to millions of global viewers tuned into the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. A two-year partnership between sports apparel manufacturer Under Armour and Fort Worth-based Lockheed Martin Aeronautics has resulted in the aerodynamic skin-tight suits worn by U.S. speed skaters. The men and women’s speed-skating teams turned in disappointing results early in the Olympics but hope to grab hold of medals before the Olympics conclude on Feb. 23.
The Under Armour Mach39 speed skating “skins” are considered the fastest speed skating suits in the world and even feature a pin-striping design inspired by America’s hot-rod culture. The suits represent the latest in more than a decade of advances designed to combat air resistance and whittle seconds from Olympic times, said Derek Parra, a 2002 gold and silver medalist who is now director of sports at The Utah Olympic Oval, where the U.S. team trained. Kenneth B. Ross, director of communications and public affairs at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, called the suits a “unique collaboration” between the defense manufacturer and Under Armour, which is headquartered in Baltimore, “We’re proud to support the U.S. speed skating team,” he said.
Ross confirmed that engineers from Fort Worth were involved in the project. Lockheed Martin Corp, based in Bethesda, Md., is widely considered the world’s largest defense firms and employs more than 15,000 Metroplex workers at the aeronautics plant in west Fort Worth and the smaller Missiles and Fire Control Unit in Grand Prairie. More than 12,500 workers are employed at the mile-long Fort Worth plant, which is charged with producing more than 2,400 models of the F-35 Lightning II for the Air Force, Navy and Marines. The 100th F-35 rolled off the Fort Worth assembly line in December. In its role for the Olympics, Lockheed Martin worked with Under Armour’s team to create a “computational fluid dynamics model” to analyze how air flows around the skater, said Ross. “The work included small-scale wind tunnel testing in Lockheed Martin’s facilities of different skin materials and development of drag reduction concepts for prototype skins, followed by drag testing of specific racing poses at the Glenn L. Martin Wind Tunnel at the University of Maryland,” he said. Under Armour, in a fact-sheet detailing the design and research, said the Mach39 was engineered “for superior aerodynamic performance on the ice” and was “developed from the ground up in partnership with Lockheed Martin.” Development and testing began more than two years ago when the design team used a special high-speed camera to capture speed-skaters’ movements on ice. Under Armour’s “Innovation Team” then worked with Lockheed Martin to determine key body positions and determine the flow around the skater.
Reinforced fiberglass mannequins were created to conduct over 300 hours of wind tunnel testing with hundreds of different skin set-ups and textile configurations to find the most aerodynamic combination, said Under Armour. The goal was to produce a molded polyurethane aerodynamic shape placed on critical areas of the skin to disrupt the air flow around the athlete’s body. The design also included moisture-wicking technology to keep sweat from weighing down the skin. An added touch: Pin-striping by world-class artist Steve “The Wizard” Chaszeyka that was inspired“ by the hotrod Americana culture” to embody the themes of “raw speed and power,” said the Under Armour fact sheet. Parra, who was 32 when he medaled at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, said speed skating technology has come along away since the 1960s, when speed skating suits “were just wool tights and sweat shirts and sweat shirts and big mittens and beans’” The Olympian discussed the technology with the Business Press in a telephone interview from the Utah Olympics Oval, which was built as the speed skating training site for the 2002 Olympics. The Oval, located near Salt Lake City, has remained as the training center for Olympics speed skating, ice hockey, figure skating and curling. Parra said that skating suit technology ramped up with development of a skin suit by Nike in advance of the Salt City Olympics. Over the years, he said, researchers discovered that the design of the suits can complement the skills of the skater by reducing air friction and cutting critical fractions of seconds. The newest suit features bubbles and louvers designed to push out air away from the skater and help prevent drag. “You were shaving off seconds just by having a piece of material on your body,” said Parra, who is familiar with the Mach39. “Eighty percent of speed skating is frontal air resistance,” he said. “That’s why speed skaters skate in that crouched position…Eighty percent is pretty substantial in a sport that comes down to a hundredth of a second.” Parra acknowledged that the 2014 teams’ failure to grab a medal so far is a “little bit disturbing” but he held out hopes of rebound in the Olympics’ final days. “I’m not sure what the problem is,” he said. “The U.S team unfortunately hasn’t skated to their potential in the races thus far but they still have a chance to bring some medals home. “