The clouds stretched across the Texas sky like a highway. And soaring along those lanes, lofted nearly 8,000 feet by the hot air rising from the Earth, two hang gliders raced in tight pursuit of the most prized feat in this high-adrenaline niche sport: farthest ever flown.
The men, Jonny Durand and Dustin Martin, had already journeyed 438 miles in 10 hours, splitting up and converging as each pursued his own path alongside the red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures. Against all odds, they were now flying nearly wingtip to wingtip.
Because of the consoles of gadgets mounted on their control bars, the two men knew that they had now flown farther than any person ever had using a hang glider.
Having launched near the southern tip of Texas in July, a few miles from Mexico, the two men had pushed north, propelled by the fierce flatland wind, and at times had reached more than 80 miles per hour.
There was Durand, dangling under his Red Bull-sponsored wing, who had prophesied that morning, “I've got a good feeling about today." The archetype of the adventurous Australian, he was known to friends as someone who operated best with a few margaritas or at least a decent hangover.
And there, soaring alongside, was Martin, the quiet, perpetually destitute product of the American West. Ever since he had started working at an airport as a teen, earning less than he handed back for his flying lessons, he had scraped together just enough on the ground to spend as much time as possible off it.
They called themselves friends. But rivals better fit the jaunty, “sure you're up for this?" competitiveness of the daring prodigies. As they flew past the old world-record distance, the question turned first to how much farther they could go. But as the sun retreated and they began their descent, another question began to nag at the two men: Who would go the farthest?
A sports record offers a small claim to immortality: certified evidence that a person not only lived but excelled. The pursuit of this particular record — farthest ever flown — had for more than a decade drawn some of the world's best hang glider pilots to Zapata, a dingy border town at the southern tip of Texas.
The low-lying area seems an unlikely home for a high-altitude sport. But the town had been identified by Gary Osoba, a former hang gliding pilot who studied decades of weather data to find the place with the best meteorological conditions for long flights.
There, in 2000, Osoba started what he called the World Record Encampment, which drew some of the best hang glider pilots each summer to chase various distance records. “Almost everyone who goes to Zapata has had the longest flight of their lives," said David Glover, a businessman in Oklahoma City who has attended most years.
Martin was at home in Scottsdale, Ariz., on the night of June 29 when his cellphone rang. It was Jonny Durand. He and a handful of other gifted pilots had assembled in Zapata. They expected to be there for weeks. Conditions were excellent. And Durand wanted his rival to join them.
Martin had intended to skip the 2012 gathering because he was broke and, as he reminded anyone willing to listen to his trademark rant, he hated the place. But the combination of some good-natured needling from Durand and the prospect of missing a rare opportunity provoked Martin to make a few phone calls. He consulted with other pilots in Zapata and confirmed that the sky seemed more promising than usual. He connected with his main sponsor, hang glider manufacturer Wills Wing, which said it would send a check for $2,500 overnight to pay the entrance fee and other costs.
One thought above all had changed his mind: “I didn't want Jonny to fly 500 miles while I just sat here."
'See you up there'
Most mornings in Zapata begin with a debate about the weather. The pilots, conscious that margins matter when it comes to breaking records, agreed they must wait for the right day. They differed about what that would look like.
On the morning of July 3, the conditions were something short of perfect. The sky was a bit too clear; only a few white puffs clouded the blue expanse. The wind could have been stronger. The ground was still moist from heavy rain a few days earlier.
Despite his late arrival and some mild protest from Durand, Martin was allowed to launch first because he was the first to get his hang glider assembled and on the runway.
Like the other pilots, Martin carried enough technology to fill a carry-on suitcase: a global positioning device that helped him determine his route, a variometer that measured how quickly he was rising or falling, a flight data recorder for record verification, a two-way radio to communicate with other pilots and support crew, a rescue beacon in case he found himself stranded in remote country, and a strobe light in case he landed after sunset.
He strapped into his harness, which suspends the pilot into a prone position below the wing. On the ground, he kept his feet free for launching, but once in the air, he would zip himself into the harness like a sleeping bag.
Finally he turned to Durand.
“See you up there."
At 9:57 a.m., the tow bridle attached to Martin's hang glider snapped tight.
There are two ways that hang gliders typically get into the air. The traditional approach is to run off the top of a hill, mountain or cliff. But pilots also use a technique that has made the sport far less beholden to local topography: towing.
A line is attached from a plane to the pilot and then pulled forward until the hang glider is brought into the air. In Zapata, the pilots used a slow-flying, experimental propeller plane designed for the task and called “the dragonfly."
And with the plane sputtering forward, Martin suddenly lifted into the air, riding its wake like a water skier. Once he had reached 3,000 feet off the ground, he pulled a cord releasing him from the plane.
He was, at last, in the sky and on his own. Once in the air, Martin assessed the landscape. The humid morning air dulled the view, creating the illusion that the thicket of mesquite and prickly pear below extended forever.
Because a hang glider is constantly descending, a pilot must find columns of warm rising air, called thermals, to gain the altitude needed to stay in the sky. So Martin traveled cautiously, watching for soaring birds and developing clouds to detect areas with lift, while eyeing the ground to make sure he had a backup plan if he kept descending.
Durand took off at 10:10 a.m., 13 minutes after Martin. Thirty miles from Zapata, Durand spotted him for the first time. The gray wing with blue and white stripes was just a speck in the sky, about three miles ahead. The men were approaching Laredo, an old river crossing that had grown into a bustling hub of border country.
The sky, which had been mostly clear when they took off, was filling with clouds. The air was warming, and the men were climbing higher with almost every thermal. The difficult morning flying was giving way to a great afternoon.
After coming close several times, Durand finally caught up to Martin near Carrizo Springs, 114 miles into the trip. It was 1 p.m. They had been communicating by radio, trading bearings and cracking jokes, and both men were anticipating flying together, with more a sense of relief than rivalry.
“I knew that if we could help each other out, life was going to be that much easier," Durand said. As if to prove the point, soon afterward, they hit their biggest thermal of the trip, circling each other as they rose 1,000 feet a minute.
The contest between the two men developed a leapfrog rhythm. A mistake by the pilot in front was seized upon by the pilot in back, and the lead changed. Then another battle to catch up. And then a repeat.
After hours of flying close together, suddenly, Martin shot miles ahead.
The record falls
Though the official record was 435 miles, the real number to beat was 438 — the farthest anyone had ever flown in a hang glider.
As that moment approached, Martin, having built a seemingly insurmountable lead, watched his GPS to see when the number ticked over. It was like watching a clock on New Year's Eve, using technology to confirm a landmark that would otherwise be impossible to recognize. “I was already celebrating my record," Martin said.
And then suddenly, there was Durand, flying within shouting distance.
The two men were shocked to see each other again after nearly two hours apart. “I couldn't believe my eyes," Durand said. “I thought I'd never see him again."
Then, at 8:34, Martin hit a small thermal. The pocket of lift was so light that he was not even going up at all; he was being lifted just enough to offset his descent, a phenomenon pilots call “zero sink." Martin circled for six minutes, staying even to the ground but gaining 262 feet of height on his rival.
The realization hit Durand at once. In a journey that had lasted hundreds of miles, these 262 feet would be the difference. Durand, speaking to his video camera, made a painful peace: “He's going to get me by a little bit."
The journey ends
Durand had flown more than 472 miles, or about the distance from New York to Detroit. So far, in fact, that the sun was setting as he landed, 26 minutes later than it had in Zapata.
As soon as his feet reunited with the ground, Durand typed a message into his flight tracker that was seen by people watching the final moments online around the world: “I just landed and would like a margarita."
Later, after Martin had landed three miles farther, near the small town of Lorenzo, the two men had an awkward reunion, full of celebration and freighted humor that continued during the 12-hour drive back to Zapata.
Durand remained there for a couple of more weeks, cultivating a list of excuses for his second-place showing as he tried again and again to break the record. Martin left as soon as he had submitted the paperwork for the record book.
For two friendly rivals, the day started with a chance to break the hang glider distance record. It ended after a journey of more than 475 miles — about the distance from New York to Detroit — and one man's slim margin of victory.comments powered by Disqus