Although to the novice viewer it may appear that all ski jumpers simply cannonball down to the end of the ramp and land as far down the hill as their momentum will take them, in truth the ones who plane into the wind and use the air as a lifting medium go much farther. Felder sometimes sails more than 270 feet in the 70-meter event. (Typically a ski jumper gets no more than 15 feet off the ground during his flight.) But when Felder crashed, he had traveled less than half that distance, even though his speed had been approximately the same as in a good jump—50 mph.
"A ski jumper is like an airplane," says Paul Ganzenhuber, the Austrian national team ski jumping coach. "The same rules apply. The jumper seeks the perfect angle, and that's just a feeling. It can't be taught or learned."
Ganzenhuber, who has never ski jumped, is captivated by the vicarious thrills he gets from his fly-boys. "They have the feeling after a good flight that time has expanded." he says. "Andi told me once after a good jump that he felt he was in the air for more than half an hour."
Felder and Vettori, both members of the Austrian army, rose out of the Austrian state ski high school called Stams and have won numerous World Cup events between them. They have received a lot of recognition—not to mention home appliances. But they claim that they got into jumping not for fame or profit, but simply because it was easy. "We didn't have a ski lift in our hometown, and you don't have to climb as far for jumping as you do for downhill," says Felder. Adds Vettori of their early days. "We were pretty wild dogs."
Indeed, in 1982 Vettori lost control of his speeding car in the mountains near Innsbruck and plunged off the road. Both he and Felder were thrown from the tumbling vehicle. Vettori escaped with minor injuries, but Felder broke his hip in three places. Four months later Felder was jumping again because, as Ganzenhuber says, "Felder is a tough guy."
Vettori is pretty tough, too, but he also has a shy, childlike streak that makes him seem younger than he is and far more vulnerable than Felder. "Ernst has a wonderful feeling for flying," says Ganzenhuber, "but he needs to control his emotions. Right now Andi is at the top of his form. But Ernst can go farther. In two years Ernst can be the best there is. but he's not the best now. He needs that hardness."
Felder is big for a jumper, six feet. 152 pounds, but Vettori is tiny, just 5'6¼" and 125 pounds. "He's got bird hormones," says Holland. His size is at once an advantage and a source of danger. When Vettori leans into an up-draft just so. he seems to soar like a balsa-wood glider—as he did at Lahti in the same meet during which Felder crashed. There he won a special exhibition 90-meter night jump and left a disbelieving crowd.
On that flight he sailed 40 feet more than the length of a football field plus two end zones and more than 60 feet farther than any of his competitors. His leap was all the more startling because he flew 30 feet past the K Point—the spot where the slope begins to flatten out. beyond which landing is considered dangerous. The wind toyed with Vettori on that jump the way it toys with a dust mote. Not only did Vettori land almost at the bottom of the slope; he also very nearly landed off the side of the course. Such loss of control is at the heart of both the exhilaration and terror of ski jumping, although points given by judges for a jumper's technique—i.e., his control—also count toward his standing in competitions. "When everything is just right, there's nothing like jumping." says Felder. "It's like driving a fast car with a lot of horsepower, and all of a sudden there's a surge when your turbo comes on."
That turbo can scare you to death, too. "On a big hill you are playing with your life." says Ganzenhuber. "Especially in Schifliegen, (German for ski flying, which is a form of jumping that uses a longer run-in and thus generates still longer distances). Last year there was a strong wind during the Schifliegen championships in Klum I Bad Mitterndorf, Austria), and four good jumpers were hurt badly. One crashed so hard, his heart stopped beating. Fortunately a doctor-saved him.
"It came to be Ernst's turn, and he said to me, 'Can I go?' And I said. 'No, not today.' Every athlete is proud, but I looked at him and his face was white, his eyes were staring straight ahead. Later a doctor told me that Ernst's pulse was more than 220. It's a dangerous sport, and one needs courage to take his feelings away."