Montana Earth Science Picture of the Week

Great Kicker + Favorable Atmosphere = School Record Field Goal in 2003

Photo courtesy of John Smith D.M.D. of Helena Family Dentistry

A calm, sunny afternoon . . .
On Saturday afternoon October 18th, 2003 at Vigilante Stadium in Helena, senior Dan Carpenter kicked the longest field goal in the history of Helena High School football. Although Carpenter was given credit for a 53-yard attempt, the ball traveled far beyond the crossbar. It may have been good from over 60 yards away! On this day the air in the capital city was perfectly calm, so the attempt was not wind-aided. However, there were a couple things about the condition of the atmosphere that afternoon in Helena that did work in Dan's favor.

Temperature . . .
This was a day game, and temperature at the stadium during the game was about 85 degrees F. When the air is warmer the molecules move faster, causing them to be more spread out. As a result, a ball traveling through warmer air will not collide with as many molecules as one traveling through colder air. The fewer collisions between the ball and air molecules on a warm day help a ball to travel farther. The warmth of that afternoon meant that there was less friction, or air resistance, as the football traveled through the air than there would have been if the ball were kicked on a cold Friday night.

According to The Physics of Baseball by Robert K. Adair, a baseball hit 400 feet when the temperature is 45 degrees F would travel 416 feet if the temperature were 85 F (about 4 feet farther for every 10 degrees F warmer).

Another consideration is the affect that warmer temperatures had on the ball. The air inside the football was also very warm, so this would have provided good pressure. To get the same pressure on a cold day would have required pumping more air into the ball, which would have made the ball slightly heavier. Furthermore, the leather and rubber of the warmer ball had better elasticity than they would have on a cold day.

Elevation . . .
Its no secret that baseballs travel farther in the "thin air" of Coors field in Denver (elevation is about 5,000 feet) than they do in the sea level air of Seattle. This is because air molecules at Coors Field aren't squeezed together by the weight of the atmosphere above Denver as much as air molecules in Seattle are. There is less atmosphere above Denver, Helena (4,000 ft above sea level), and Butte (about 5,000 ft.) than there is above Seattle, Billings, and Great Falls. As a result, a football kicked in Helena or Butte will collide with less air molecules than a ball kicked at a lower elevation.

CLICK HERE to try an interactive home run animation. Set the speed at 125 and the angle at 45.

Great Montana Kickers . . .
The longest field goal ever by a Montana high school player was kicked by Travis Dorsch of Bozeman High School in the late 1990's. He kicked a 63-yarder in a game against Salmon, Idaho (at Salmon)! Travis went on to have a great college career at Purdue.

Update: After a stellar career with the University of Montana Grizzlies, Dan Carpenter moved on to the NFL. In the summer of 2008 he was named as the starting field goal kicker for the Miami Dolphins! In his second season with the Dolphins (2009-2010) Dan was named to the Pro-Bowl, becoming the second Helena High graduate to earn the honor. Pat Donavon (HHS Class of '71) was an all-pro offensive tackle for the Cowboys in the early 1980's. During the summer 2013 Dan was released by the Dolphins, and then on September 3rd he became the kicker for the Buffalo Bills.

Trivia . . .
What former MSU Bobcat is in the NFL Hall of Fame? To find the answer, check out the Hot Link below.

Terms: friction, pressure


MSU Bobcat in Hall of Fame
*Why balls fly farther at high altitude
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By Rod Benson
Earth Science Teacher at Helena High School

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