Inflategate

A controversial new air bag system, worn on the body, debuts on the Alpine World Cup with hopes of changing skier safety forever

Marquee Photo: Matthias Mayer races down the Birds of Prey course at Beaver Creek, Colorado, during the World Cup stop there in December 2015. PHOTO: Jonathan Selkowitz

How many lives have been saved and injuries prevented by air bags? Certainly, no one can say for sure. Since 1998, the technology has been a mandatory component in all cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. More recently, in skiing, air bags have become a standard piece of backcountry equipment, serving as flotation systems and helping prevent trauma to the head, neck, and upper body in the event of an avalanche.

But what if a skier could intimately surround parts of his or her body with an air bag system, one so sophisticated it could accurately identify trouble and deploy within a tenth of a second?

It was the first time an air bag had been deployed in a World Cup race.

That’s exactly what happened last month in Val Gardena, Italy, as Matthias Mayer’s ski season came to an abrupt and violent end. The Olympic downhill champ, a superstar on the Austrian Ski Team, was having a solid run on the renowned Saslong course when he lost control, got spun around, and was sent flying backward through the air.

And then came the pop.

In midair, Mayer’s air bag undergarment, developed and manufactured by Dainese, deployed and surrounded his chest, side, and shoulder areas with a protective cushion. An instant later, the Austrian was awkwardly and harshly slammed onto the icy downhill track. He took a couple rough bounces on his back and side before sliding to a motionless rest.

It was the first time an air bag had been deployed in a World Cup race. After collecting data from the system’s “black box,” Dainese reported that Mayer’s speed at initial impact was 109 kph (68 mph), which generated as many as 13 Gs of force. The prognosis: two broken vertebrae, surgery, and at least one season out of World Cup racing. Thankfully, it wasn’t worse.

Hours after the crash, one of the World Cup’s most outspoken members, American Ted Ligety, took to Facebook to voice concern.

“I feel horrible for Matthias Mayer,” Ligety wrote. “It’s really unfortunate racers are being used as crash test dummies to experiment with an unproven air bag system. To my knowledge he was the first real race crash with the air bag, which resulted in the worst back injury in more then a decade for World Cup. It looks to me like the air bag acted as a fulcrum for his back to break around. This needs to be investigated.”

In a subsequent post, Ligety was obliged to acknowledge his ownership of a competitor company of sorts, Slytech Protection, which manufactures back protectors. However, Ligety’s comment was taken seriously and supported by at least a portion of on-looking athletes and industry professionals.

On Saturday, Canadian skier Benjamin Thomsen, in Wengen, became the second World Cup athlete to experience a deployment under race conditions. The Dainese airbag functioned as it should during the backslapping crash near the bottom of the Lauberhorn, and Thomsen skied off the hill with a smile on his face.

“Felt like Superman after a pretty big spill today on the ‪Lauberhorn‬ downhill,” said Thomsen, who joked around in the finish area by flexing his inflated muscles. “[My] body is a bit stiff but thanks to ‪the ‎Dainese Airbag,‬ I am heathy and hungry to start Kitzbuhel.”

Racetrack roots

Dainese, an Italian company with origins in motorcycling, developed the D-Air Ski with encouragement from the FIS, namely it’s former alpine race director, Gunter Hujara, starting in 2011. The system was modeled after the company’s original wearable air bag system developed for motorcycle racing, which has been roundly praised for mitigating injuries and even saving lives in that sport.

“Dainese has been involved in safety projects for many years,” said Marco Pastore, a company spokesman intimately involved in the D-Air Ski project. “We started with the motobikes, the air bags, more than 15 years ago, and now almost every pilot in the Moto GP and the Superbike, they’re wearing the D-Air. This technology was so well appreciated in motosport, that we decided it was also possible to bring the technology to skiing, where these guys are so crazy.”

Will the new Dainese air bag harm or help ski racers caught in violent crashes? PHOTO: Courtesy of Dainese
Will the new Dainese air bag harm or help ski racers caught in violent crashes? PHOTO: Courtesy of Dainese

The air bag consists of two parts: an electrical system—that includes GPS, accelerometers, and gyroscopes—and a pneumatic system, which includes gas generators to inflate the bag. Over a four-year period, Dainese collected data by installing just the electrical system (without air bags) into the back protectors of their athletes. Engineers analyzed the data from up to nine sensors recording speed, angular rotation, and acceleration, and they effectively developed an algorithm to determine exactly when a racer is about to crash. Initially, the biggest concern of the athletes piloting the system was: “How do I know this thing isn’t going to pop when it’s not supposed to and ruin my run?”

The racers began wearing the complete air bag system in unofficial training runs, then official training runs. With time, Dainese earned the racers’ trust that the system wouldn’t falsely deploy—a testament to the algorithm—and select Austrian and Canadian athletes began donning the technology in actual World Cup races. There was little discussion, at least publicly, that the air bag could potentially cause more harm than good, as Ligety alleges.

“You have to say, no system can protect you at such a very nasty crash. It was flat, even slightly uphill terrain. You can’t blame the air bag for [my injury]. I don’t feel like I was a test pilot for a new system.” —Matthias Mayer

“The crash of Matthias Mayer in Val Gardena was a very, very bad crash,” said Pastore. “This is because he landed more than 100 kilometers per hour. And the worst thing was that he landed on a flat section, not on the steep section. That means the impact was very strong.

“Analyzing the crash with the experts—including external experts, not just Dainese experts, because we didn’t want to have just one opinion—we confirmed that the air bag worked pretty well, and it probably helped avoid other injuries,” added Pastore. “In any case, we can confirm 100 percent that the air bag was not the source of any damage to the athlete. That’s 100 percent confirmed from the engineers and the biomechanics in Austria, as well as the doctor who did the surgery on Matthias Mayer.”

After an 11-day stint in the hospital, Mayer, a Dainese-sponsored athlete, emerged and addressed the media.

“I have collected precise feedback on the crash,” Mayer told reporters. “You have to say, no system can protect you at such a very nasty crash. It was flat, even slightly uphill terrain. You can’t blame the air bag for [my injury]. I don’t feel like I was a test pilot for a new system.”

Still, not all athletes and onlookers are entirely convinced. TJ Lanning knows more about hard crashes than just about anybody. A former world No. 1-ranked junior and U.S. Ski Team downhiller, Lanning set the bar for cringe-worthy crashes during his time as a professional racer. A 2009 spill in Lake Louise resulted in a fractured neck and a demolished left knee, terminating his once-promising career. Lanning rehabbed for two years just to get back on snow, went on to coach the U.S. Ski Team, and now works for Spyder full time.

His initial reaction to the Mayer crash was in accord with Ligety. Lanning is familiar with the Dainese vest, having tried it on as recently as the spring of 2015. At first impression, the industry vet was an enthusiastic supporter of the technology, wondering if a similar air bag system—one for the neck—could have prevented his own career-ending injury. As for Mayer, Lanning says there are still unanswered questions.

“The fact that the air bag does not go all the way down to the tailbone…that’s why the current design could be dangerous,” said Lanning. “I don’t know everything about Matthias’ injury, but I know enough about my own injuries and about physiology to see where maybe the air bag could have been attributed to his back injury.”

Ligety echoes Lanning’s concern, telling the Associated Press, “How can you say it’s safer when the guy badly broke two vertebrae and almost was paralyzed? So to say it saved him is just completely false…That is a horrible accident. I would be surprised if that’s not career-ending—which is a shame.”

Dainese insists Mayer’s air bag did not inflate on the back, but on his “chest, side, and shoulder areas,” so it could not have caused the injury to the sixth and seventh vertebrae, they say.

“The problem is [Ligety] is talking without knowing our air bag,” said Pastore. “It doesn’t inflate on the back. … I don’t know who he is talking to. I don’t believe an athlete, even such a great champion, can come up with such an opinion about the fulcrum of the air bag. It’s not possible with our air bag.”

Coming to a ski shop near you?

There aren’t many for-profit companies that would develop such an advanced technology if there weren’t at least a possibility of selling it to the masses. The Dainese D-Air Ski is currently being worn by just a handful of elite World Cup ski racers, but that’s something that could change in the years to come.

“At the moment, the project is focused on racing activities, on the speed events. This is something specific for the elite athletes. The next goal: We would like to see many racers at other levels using such a protector. More than 20 years ago, athletes started using back protectors, which was very strange and new in the beginning, but now everybody wears a back protector. Why not? Maybe in the future, also an air bag.”

As for Lanning’s suggestion that the air bag technology could be similarly applied to protecting the neck, which may have prevented his own injury, Dainese says such a concept and others are in the works.

“Of course, we believe we can still improve,” said Pastore. “There are some other areas of the body we want to start protecting, for example the neck. If you analyze the crash of Matthias Mayer, you will see how the neck is moving. He was lucky that he didn’t break the neck.

“We also want to work on the hips, and [we have] an ambitious project with hopes of protecting the knees, which will be very difficult to achieve. We will keep going. This is our job. This is our mission.”

Air bag technology could potentially also carry with it huge benefits for competitive park and pipe athletes, as well as big-mountain skiers. But, of course, the movement patterns of an alpine downhiller are completely different than that of a halfpipe skier and that of a backcountry cliff-hucker.

It’s all in the algorithm, says Pastore. Does he predict one day every skier on the mountain will have an air bag on his or her person? In a sport where the average recreational athlete could take a tumble four or five times per day, an advanced air bag system may not be the most efficient safety precaution—but he didn’t rule it out.

More likely, future applications will be geared toward high-level, competitive skiers and snowboarders in a variety of disciplines (and mountain bikers, too).

Lanning sees it as a distinct possibility: “You’ll need one system to work for alpine, where there’s not a lot of rotation, and you’ll need a similar system for park and pipe or even big mountain, where everyone is spinning, flipping off cliffs. There would definitely be some serious R&D and tech going into that.

“I think it would work, and there are definitely engineers that could figure it out. Five or 10 years from now, I guarantee you see it.”