A helium-filled football will fly higher and farther than a football filled with plain old air. Right? Well, University of Washington principal lecturer June Morita decided to put the question to the test this week with her introductory statistics class.
A helium-filled football will fly higher and farther than one filled with plain old air.
Well, University of Washington principal lecturer June Morita put the question to the test this week with her introductory-statistics class. She had friends in the chemistry department vacuum the air out of four footballs and fill two with helium, a gas lighter than air, and two with argon, a gas heavier than air.
Then she enlisted Husky football players Eric Guttorp, a kicker, and Tripper Johnson, a safety with kicking experience. Each was asked to take 18 placekicks — six each with the argon-, helium- and regular air-filled balls — without knowing which was which. Students would measure the “hang time” as well as distance.
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In the buildup to this week’s kickoff at the Dempsey Indoor Practice Field, the theories were flying. Most of Morita’s class predicted the helium balls would perform best.
“I would say that helium would have a higher hang time and travel a little bit farther,” said student Ki Lee. “Just based on common logic.”
Guttorp predicted the opposite. He can’t kick a smaller junior ball very far because it’s too light, he said. So he figured the heavier argon balls would go farther.
The debate can be traced back to Ray Guy, a punter for the Oakland Raiders in the 1970s and ’80s who could get astonishing hang time and distance. According to Sports Illustrated, former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips once accused Guy of inflating the football with helium. Phillips claimed he’d nabbed one of Guy’s footballs and was threatening to have it tested at nearby Rice University. No helium was ever found.
Fast-forward to 2006, when the Discovery Channel show “MythBusters” put the theory to the test. Using a mechanical kicker, it concluded that balls filled with either helium or air traveled about the same distance, declaring the myth “busted.”
Undeterred, Morita wanted to add tests for hang time and for heavier gasses. Besides, she likes to get her students engaged in active learning.
In other classes, she cuts loaves of French bread to prove a point about statistical models — then offers the slices with cheese.
“She’s good at going for real-life examples of what we are learning in class,” said Caitlin Kieran. “It’s a fun way to get people involved.”
When Guttorp and Johnson took their kicks, both said they could hear and feel a difference with certain balls. Husky basketball star Quincy Pondexter, a student in the class who was given the familiar assignment of catching or stopping the balls, agreed.
“Some balls are landing really, really hard,” he said. “Some don’t have the same pop.”
Also in play was the human factor: Johnson, who doesn’t kick as regularly as Guttorp, was tiring by the end of his 18 kicks and needed a couple of do-overs.
So what happened?
The most striking result was that each of the kickers averaged about three yards less in distance with the argon balls. The helium and air balls performed about the same in both distance and hang time.
Guttorp pointed out that in a strong headwind, the argon balls might do better than either air or helium. Meanwhile helium balls, he figured, might perform the best with a tail wind.
Perhaps a new Husky strategy is born?
According to MaryAnn Emery, an associate director of compliance for the UW Athletic Department, there are NCAA rules about the size and weight of game footballs, down to minutiae such as each ball must be made from four panels of pebble-grained leather and have no corrugation except for eight equally spaced lacings. But there’s nothing relating to what’s inside.
“The only thing it says in the football manual is that the balls must be filled to a pressure of between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch,” she said.
“There’s nothing in there that says it has to be air.”
Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or firstname.lastname@example.org