On July 3, 2012, Australian Jonny Durand duelled it out in the sky with American Dustin Martin for the hang-gliding world distance record. They were both attempting to break a 12-year-old, non-motorised, hang gliding distance record of 700km and blew past it nearly wingtip to wingtip, working together while simultaneously schooling each other on finding thermals – which they relied on for lift – for nearly 11 hours.
Watch Durand's 2016 attempt in the video above.
On the ground the two are friends, but as Durand said, "You get in the air and you are up there to beat each other." Four years ago, Durand’s flight ended nearly 5km short of Martin’s, when he turned to film the sunset and let his mind lapse. At the same time, Martin caught one last thermal and soared overhead to the new world record of 475 miles (764km). Durand says he was the better pilot on that day because he actually caught up to Martin after a staggered start, but after flying 11 hours and climbing a total of 161,000km, in the end it came down to Martin getting that 480km extra feet of lift.
Every year, the two pilots battle it out for the World Championship and National Championship titles. "Dustin normally seems to be the bridesmaid," Durand says. “Unfortunately he got the last laugh on that one.”
Durand decided that four years was long enough for Martin to soak in his glory and returned to the scene of the record – Zapata, Texas – in June 2016 for another chance. The Mexican border town is known for drug trafficking and gang violence, but Durand makes the best of it. “I’m not in Zapata because it’s a tropical island with coconuts and nice clear water in front of me, that’s for sure,” he says. "There’s no other reason to be here."
Zapata is the destination of choice for the World Record Encampment. It's the brainchild of astrophysicist Gary Osoba, who started the encampment in 2000 after researching weather on the entire planet. Determination and athleticism take a backseat to the reality of weather conditions when chasing thermals, and Zapata boasts all of the best meteorological conditions for long flights: sun, the convergences of air masses and moist and dry air to create lift. Hot desert air mixes with moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, and winds blowing north create a stream of hot air perfect for creating thermals and pushing for distance records.
Even with perfect conditions, flying nearly 700km is no small feat. "It’s a world record for a reason," Durand points out. "It’s not easy to break." To put the record into perspective, he would spend an hour and a half on a commercial flight between his hometown of Brisbane and Sydney, which is similar to the 2000 world record distance he set out to break in 2012. For years he stared out the aeroplane window, looking at the amount of ground he’d have to cover to break the distance record.
Flying beyond that distance in 2012 was a high point. "Wow, I actually did that flight," says Durand. "Obviously in a different area and on a different continent, but it was amazing to realise that a hang glider with no motor can fly such a long distance. People spend 12 hours in a car to drive that distance, they couldn’t fathom that we're up there in a hang glider that whole time."
There’s a whole lot more at risk in setting the record than just flying from point A to point B. While the skies in Texas may be ideal for flying, the ground is not perfect for landing. The harsh environment presents challenges like getting locked behind gates on private land, venturing into Mexico without a passport, and descending into prickly pear cactus and mesquite trees full of thorns.
Always optimistic, Durand expects the best but prepares for the worst. "I have little buttons on my tracking devices that can bring in helicopters," he says. "It’s a nice little thing to have."
Only a handful of hang glider pilots are willing to push past 480km. "Not everyone wants to be in the air for 11 hours and put themselves through that kind of pain," says Durand. "It’s a mentally exhausting day, and physically exhausting obviously. It’s the things we do for world records."
When Durand showed up for his 2016 attempt, Texas was recovering from floods that killed 16 people. The rain made the ground greener and the perfect thermals weren’t produced, thwarting his attempt even after flying seven times over a two-week period. With little to do, the crew drank enough margaritas to dry out their local hangout. "We gave them days of notice, told them they should probably go out and buy more tequila," Durand says. "It was probably a good thing for us."
"The day we had wasn’t an amazing day, but we had a lot of the elements from start to finish on that day to allow us to fly that distance," says Durand of the 2012 record attempt. "There’s no doubt in my mind that if we get a very good day that has all those elements, we’ll certainly see 800km – and maybe more – for sure. That’s the day I’m looking for. I don’t want to beat it by a mile, I want to beat it by 80km."
Learn more about Jonny Durand's world record project "Chasing Thermals" attempt here.