Designed for Flight: The Key Technologies of the Air Jordan Line

Other than undeniable style, the most important aspect of Michael Jordan’s Air Jordan signature sneaker line is certainly the rich history of technological innovations throughout the years. Beginning with the Air Jordan 1’s debut in 1985, Air Jordans would set the precedent for the best of the best in the basketball sneaker world. The coolest designs matched with the latest and greatest technology: that’s what we’ve all come to expect from each year’s numbered game shoe.

Many of the technological advancements first seen on a new Air Jordan model would become not important only to MJ’s signature line, but to all of Nike’s basketball footwear as a whole—and in some cases, even inspiring the basketball technology of other brands. Today we’ll take a look at the entire Air Jordan line from the first to the latest model, the XX9 (releasing in September), and break down all of the most important technologies found within the world’s most famous sneaker line.

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It couldn’t be an “Air Jordan” without Nike Air. The Air Jordan 1 wasn’t the first basketball shoe to utilize Nike’s flagship cushioning system, but it was definitely one of the most notable early Air-equipped models. From the heel unit in the Jordan 1, Air would expand to a full-length unit in the II and become visible in the III. Traditional Air cushioning was used in every Air Jordan model until Zoom Air (which we’ll get to in a minute) took over in the Air Jordan XII—although it did make comebacks, being utilized in the Air Jordan XVI, XVII, and as one of the cushioning options for the interchangeable insoles of the Air Jordan 2011 and Air Jordan 2012.

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Zoom Air

Air Jordan XX9. Jordan Brand

In 1995 Nike introduced a new iteration of Air cushioning known as Zoom Air. Zoom Air differs from regular Air in that it offers a lighter, lower to the ground build, utilizing tightly stretched tensile fibers woven inside a pressurized Nike Air unit for a more responsive, snappy feel. MJ was a big fan of Nike’s new Air system, and Zoom was his cushioning of choice for most of the rest of his playing career. It was first introduced in the Air Jordan XII, and would also cushion (at least in part) every single game shoe since, except for the Air Jordan XX.

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Clear Outsole
Air Jordan V. Via

The Air Jordan line introduced translucent gum rubber to the outsole of basketball shoes. The clear sole not only looked cool, it provided a stickier grip on the court than traditional opaque rubber. The icy substance debuted on the Air Jordan V, and has also been used on the VI, XI, XVI, XX2, 2010, XX8, and XX9.

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The Air Jordan VII's Huarache Bootie. Zack Schlemmer

The neoprene-constructed Huarache bootie system developed by Tinker Hatfield first debuted in 1991 in the Air Huarache runner and Air Flight Huarache basketball shoe, and then soon made its way into the Air Jordan line, as well. The lightweight, foot-hugging tech was first utilized in the Air Jordan VII, and then, while not quite a true Huarache system, the inner bootie concept was used in the Air Jordan VIII and IX.

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Carbon Fiber Shank

Carbon fiber shank visible under the Air Jordan XI's clear outsole. via

The Air Jordan XI from 1995 is known for a lot of things, including its dressed-up patent leather look, cordura nylon upper, and icy clear sole. But the biggest technological innovation in the Air Jordan that many hail as the greatest basketball sneaker of all time is the carbon fiber support shank within the midsole. A support shank provides ideal support for the lateral and medial movements on the court, and the use of carbon fiber allowed the shank to be lighter, stronger, and more durable than ever. Carbon fiber shanks would become a staple in the Air Jordan line from then on, found in almost every model since, including the XII, XIII, XIV, and XX3.

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Flight Plate

Jordan Brand

Speaking of carbon fiber, the next Air Jordan technology we’ll take a look at takes the material to the next level. The Flight Plate, which debuted on the Air Jordan XX8, is a system that utilizes a large carbon fiber plate to get the maximum use out of Zoom Air. The Flight Plate system allows Zoom Air to be placed in the shoe without the usual foam in between the Air units and your foot, thanks in part to the supportive and strong carbon fiber plates. This gives the wearer the most responsive Zoom cushioning possible. The Flight Plate will again be utilized in the XX9, and you can probably count on seeing the very well received technology in future Air Jordan models, as well.

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Independent Podular Suspension

Air Jordan XX, the first shoe to utilize IPS. Jordan Brand

The Independent Podular Suspension, or I.P.S., was the first cushioning technology to debut in an Air Jordan shoe instead of a Nike model. I.P.S. is basically a system of individual “pods” within the outsole that cushion and support the foot in key areas with different levels of cushioning. The tech would show up again in modified forms in the next two Air Jordan models, but never really took off long term. I.P.S. would also inspire the Podulon foam cushioning found today in Chris Paul’s signature Jordan models.