Two Men, One Sky: A Flight to the Finish
As they pursued hang gliding history on a July day over Texas, Jonny Durand, foreground, and Dustin Martin were often in sight of each other. More Photos »
Published: January 12, 2013
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.
Joshua Lott for The New York Times
Dustin Martin, just before a more recent flight, was used tobeing disappointed in his duels with Durand. More Photos »
Mark Watson/Red Bull Content Pool
Jonny Durand of Australia rising in warm air in 2009 above Far North Queensland. His father introduced him to hang gliding. More Photos »
Joshua Lott for The New York Times
Dustin Martin checking his gear before taking off. Each rig weighs more than 100 pounds and has to be lugged back to a road where the pilot can be picked up after landing. More Photos »
Joshua Lott for The New York Times
Dustin Martin got his first job working at an airport, but even in the cockpit of a sailplane, he longed for something that was, as he put it, “more birdlike.” More Photos »
The men suspended underneath their aluminum and fabric wings, Jonny Durand and Dustin Martin, had already journeyed 438 miles in 10 hours, splitting up and converging repeatedly 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. Farther than anyone had without the drone of an engine or the protective shell of a plane. They had flown, and were flying still, farther than anyone had in the manner dreamed of in centuries of tall tales, from Icarus to Superman — cheeks in the wind, like a bird.
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.
They crossed low over desolate expanses of cactus and mesquite, which threatened shins full of thorns for any pilot forced into an early landing. They crossed over the concrete sprawl of small cities with houses that looked like pebbles, and over the tumbling, juniper-dusted canyons of hill country, and, finally, over the parched farmland that heralded the northern borders of the state.
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. There are those who take to the sky and revel in the silence; he filled it with whoops of delight.
And there, soaring alongside, was Martin, the quiet, perpetually destitute product of the American West. His youthful dreams of flight had never given way to more practical considerations. Since he started working at an airport as a teenager, 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, as those who had spent the previous few days with them would attest, rivals better fit the jaunty, “sure you’re up for this?”competitiveness of the daring prodigies. In the sky, where they snacked on protein bars and water and relieved themselves freely over the world below, they were as evenly matched as two hang glider pilots could be.
As they flew past the old world-record distance — close enough to hear each other yahooing in celebration — the question turned first to how much farther they could possibly go. But as the sun retreated and they began their inevitable, decisive descent, another, more pointed question began to nag at the two men: who would go the farthest?
“It was at the front of both our minds,” Martin later recounted during one of the dozens of interviews with participants that were used, along with video and flight recorder data, to reconstruct the journey. “After all this, we just happened to be at the same spot. We were starting from scratch essentially.”
And with the knowledge that both had broken the old record but only one might set the record, Durand and Martin began the final push.
A sports record offers a small claim to immortality: certified evidence that a person not only lived, but also 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 best known for oil wealth and drug violence.
The pilots almost universally hated the place, cursing the second-rate Mexican food and the motel room scorpions that kept them company during what could be weeks of waiting between flights.
The locals, too, wondered at this peculiar summer migration to their hard-luck community of 5,000.
The closing of the bowling alley and drive-in movie theater had left complaining about nothing to do as the most popular pastime. Even Falcon Lake, the bass-rich reservoir along the Rio Grande that served as the area’s principal draw, was struggling to lure anglers after pirate-style attacks by members of a Mexican cartel who use it to smuggle drugs.
“There’s nothing here,” said Linda Cameron, the manager of Lakefront Lodge, the motel and campground that most of the pilots called home during their annual visits. “We’re 54 miles south of Laredo and we’re 52 miles north of Rio Grande, and there’s a lot of cactus in between.”
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.
Around the globe, Zapata stood out for its hot desert air — laden with enough moisture from the Gulf of Mexico to seed cumulus clouds — that bellowed northward for hundreds of miles as if out of a giant furnace.
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. There was an entry fee — to pay for the special plane used to tow the hang gliders into the air and a few other shared expenses — but mostly it was a casual gathering, with fewer than a dozen pilots flying and socializing for a few weeks.
They returned year after year because the weather models had been right. Before the site was identified, only one pilot had ever flown more than 300 miles. By last summer, Zapata had served as the staging ground for four flights of more than 400 miles.
“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.
That distinction has made the spot controversial among hang gliding enthusiasts, with some regarding the records set there as less than authentic, liking winning a slam dunk contest with the help of a trampoline or a weight-lifting title on the moon.
But for the cadre of pilots who attended the gatherings, the epic aerial journeys carried no asterisks.
The flying was, if anything, more difficult than in many places, requiring pilots to brave high wind and treacherous landings — in addition to the usual risks like a hang glider tumbling midair or crashing.
“The idea that you can use your wits and skills to defy the law of gravity and cross a vast stretch of this massive state is breathtaking,” said Pete Lehmann, a part-time flight instructor from Pittsburgh who was among the Zapata regulars. “Why people go bowling or play golf is simply beyond me.”
The Pilots Gather
Dustin Martin was at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., on the night of June 29 when his cellphone rang. Seeing the name on the screen, he guessed what was about to happen.
It was Jonny Durand. He and a handful of other gifted pilots had assembled in Zapata. They expected to be there for weeks. And Durand, aware of the risk, wanted his rival to join them.
The two men, both 32, had met more than a decade earlier at a hang gliding competition in Australia, when both were better described as promising rather than accomplished. Since then, Durand and Martin had become two of the top-ranked pilots in the world and had learned along the way that having the other in the air gave them an edge that helped fuel some of their best performances.
When the flying was over, often with them winning the top two places, they would spend the night together swilling beer and taking their chances with women.
“It’s been a rivalry since the early days,” Durand said. “But we’re also friends and enjoy flying together.”
The sport of hang gliding was not much older than these two youthful adherents. But its roots reach much further back.
The most famous design for what could generously be called an early hang glider remains Leonardo da Vinci’s of a contraption seemingly pulled from a children’s book. By the end of the 19th century, inventors had finally started to figure out the rough mechanics involved in getting a person airborne, birthing a series of gliding contraptions that were unwieldy, dangerous and usually flew only a few feet above the ground.
The invention of the airplane made unpowered gliding seem like an odd relic. But a dedicated few continued to work at it, convinced that motorized flight had eliminated a feeling of elemental conquest.
The modern hang glider emerged out of a simple triangular design, which made it lighter, stronger and more responsive to steering than previous gliding devices. Francis Rogallo, the NASA engineer credited as the father of the sport, predicted men would use them to fly off mountains. And in the early 1970s, scores of brave, perhaps foolhardy, pioneers started doing just that.
Those early years were filled with promise and tragedy. Images of a hang glider soaring through the Grand Canyon were offset by reports of dozens of pilots dying each year in accidents.
Hang gliding became safer as technology improved and training guidelines were established. But even as interest in other extreme sports has continued to swell, the number of licensed hang glider pilots in the United States has dropped by about two-thirds from its peak, to 5,000 last year. Instead, many would-be pilots have taken up the sibling sport of paragliding, the aerial equivalent of switching from skiing to snowboarding.
The hang glider pilots who remained, a group increasingly dominated by gray hair, remained fiercely dedicated to what they viewed less as a pastime than a calling.
Some of the most well-known of these pilots had gathered in Zapata in July, when the weather was ideal. The group included Osoba, who started the world record encampment; Davis Straub, who ran the Oz Report, a Web site that was an online watering hole for hang gliding pilots; Glen Volk, a former national hang gliding champion; Andre Wolf, a Brazilian pilot who had set the South American distance record; Glauco Pinto, another top competition pilot from Brazil; Glover, a former president of the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association; and Lehmann, who was chronicling the gatheringfor Hang Gliding & Paragliding magazine.
Durand was regarded as the only pilot there with the ability to break the absolute distance record.
That changed after the phone call from the Steak House, where some of the pilots had gathered to trade the same old stories over dinner. A few drinks later, Durand and others decided that they were going to give Martin a hard time for skipping the gathering.
The conversation veered between genuine enticement and friendly trash talk. Durand told Martin that the weather was looking very good. He noted that his own sponsors had paid for his trip and wondered whether Martin’s sponsors were being cheap. He mused that in Martin’s absence, records might fall.
“I don’t know if he really wanted me out there,” Martin said, “but he was definitely egging me on.”
Martin had attended three previous encampments, coming closer than any other pilot to breaking the distance record in 2008 with a flight of 410 miles. He intended to skip the 2012 gathering because he was broke and, as he frequently reminded anyone willing to listen to his trademark rant, he hated the place.
But the combination of Durand’s needling and the prospect of missing a rare opportunity provoked Martin to make a few phone calls. He consulted with several other pilots in Zapata and confirmed that the sky seemed even more promising than usual. He connected with his main sponsor, the hang glider manufacturer Wills Wing, which said it would send a check for $2,500 overnight to pay the entrance fee and other costs.
Then he texted Durand that he was making the 1,100-mile drive. The response, he inferred, betrayed a mix of surprise and a little bit of nervousness.
“Really?” Durand asked.
His own car had no air-conditioning, so Martin rented a small hatchback. He lashed his hang glider to the top, crunching the roof sufficiently that he would have to hammer out the dents before he returned the car.
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’
On the morning of July 3, Martin and Durand woke to a text from Osoba: “Today is excellent.”
Not everyone seemed so sure.
Most mornings in Zapata begin with a long, sometimes heated, debate about the weather. The pilots, conscious that margins matter when it comes to breaking records, agreed they must wait for just the right day. They differed about what that would look like.
On this day, 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.
But Martin and Durand, hoping the conditions would improve once they were in the air, and eager to escape the monotony of another day of waiting, readied themselves for flight. So did Straub, Lehmann, Volk and Pinto.
“You can’t always expect to have everything perfect,” Durand said. “You just have to try.”
Martin had arrived in Zapata two days before. Durand’s displeasure was unmistakable. And he wasn’t alone. Some of the pilots resented Martin’s decision to join them only after the conditions had turned so promising. Some were irritated that he had arrived without a driver to make the sometimes daylong retrievals, leaving him dependent on rides from the others.
Martin felt ganged up on, and he let Durand know it, stoking the tension.
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 that tracked his movements for record verification, a two-way radio to communicate with other pilots and support crew, a rescue beacon that could be tracked online in case he found himself stranded in remote country, and a strobe light in case he landed after sunset.
His clothing was more basic. He wore nylon tights covered with a streamlined jumper. He strapped on a helmet, covered his face with a ski mask and sunglasses, and pulled on a pair of gloves.
He stuffed eight Balance Bars into his sleeves for easy midair retrieval. On a whim, he decided to switch from his usual Clif Bars, a decision he would soon regret when the chocolate coating melted into an irritating mess. He filled a bladder with 70 ounces of water, which he could drink through a rubber straw that hung over his shoulder. As extra protection against dehydration, he chugged a large orange Gatorade.
Then he strapped into his harness, which suspends the pilot into a prone position below the wing — the hang in hang gliding. 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 — a method familiar to anyone who has witnessed tourists parasailing behind boats in beach towns. 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.
The winds whistled and slapped around him. The next eight minutes, he knew, would be the most dangerous of the trip, with countless ways to make a mistake and little time to recover from one. But his ascent went smoothly.
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.
It is a speculative exercise to identify a pivot point in the course of any life, but Martin suspects just such a moment occurred when, as a teenager in Arizona, he picked up a book at his local library. It was a small volume, nearly three decades old, about sailplanes, a type of unpowered aircraft.
After reading the book, Martin noticed that a woman’s name and home phone number had been written inside as contact information. He dialed the number, unchanged after years, and the surprised woman guided him to a local airport where he could learn to fly.
Martin headed there and got his first job, earning $2.50 an hour running alongside the sailplanes to make sure they did not tip over as they took off. But even when he was sitting in the cockpit himself, he longed for a purer form of flight, something that was, as he put it, “more birdlike.”
He tried to replicate the sensation by building a homemade glider out of aluminum tubes and plastic tarps, which succeeded only in providing scrapes and bruises after each painful encounter with the ground. At 16, he took a six-day, $600 introductory course in hang gliding.
Soon he was flying every weekend around the dormant volcanoes around Flagstaff, Ariz. Then most weekdays. He was fired from the airport, the first of many lost jobs, accused of spending too much time looking at the sky.
Martin settled on an itinerant lifestyle: work a few months painting, fixing bikes or teaching hang gliding, and spend the rest of the year flying. He competed in Australia, Europe and South America, throughout the Rockies and then the Alps.
He was soon winning enough to get much of his equipment and travel costs paid by sponsors. Among the small circle of competitive pilots, he was known as shy, even reclusive, alternately funny and fussy, with a savantlike knowledge of the sport.
In 2000, Martin was one of the pilots present for the first record encampment in Zapata. The first day, he flew 202 miles. It was his personal best, but his celebration faded to disappointment when he learned that another pilot had set a world record with a 311-mile flight.
The world record continued to grow, but each time Martin traveled to Zapata, something would go wrong. One year, he was forced to sleep outside for a night while waiting for someone to pick him up after a flight. Another year, he hitchhiked and rode back to civilization inside a border patrol van that had been rounding up illegal immigrants. His 410-mile flight still ranked as the third longest ever, but somehow, the place felt cursed.
“You would never go here for any other reason,” Martin said. “You’re either moving drugs across the border, you’re making money with oil, or you’re killing it with hang gliders.”
The Journey Begins
Once in the air, Martin assessed the landscape. The humid morning air, still cool on the skin, dulled the view, creating the illusion that the thicket of mesquite and prickly pear below extended forever.
Regardless of how far he hoped to go, he would have to make it past this perilous territory first.
Because a hang glider is constantly descending — at roughly 200 feet a minute — a pilot must find columns of warm rising air, called thermals, to gain the altitude needed to stay in the sky for more than just a sled ride, as short flights are disparagingly called.
Invisible to the eye, thermals are recognizable to most people as the source of turbulence on airplane flights or what allow a bird to circle skyward without flapping its wings. The billowing growth of a cloud on a warm day is perhaps the clearest sign of a thermal, with the cloud capping the rising air as foam does the rising bubbles of a beer, which is why pilots use clouds to help plot their paths.
Strong thermals, which are sought and feared, are capable of lifting a hang glider thousands of feet in minutes. Lighter thermals, the ones Martin was hunting, require precise flying to find and then ascend. In most other places, pilots would simply wait until the day had warmed sufficiently before starting their flights. But for this record chase, every extra minute of daylight mattered.
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.
Pilots hated this early stretch of the trip. Air conditions often force them to fly so low that they have to be ready to land at any time. But there was nowhere to land, except the clearings around the occasional oil pump, that did not risk shredding them and tearing up their gliders with thorns up to three inches long.
“Not to be too dramatic,” Lehmann said, “but it’s friggin’ dangerous to land in some of these godforsaken places.”
Even safely on the ground, pilots might have to spend hours lugging more than 100 pounds of equipment in search of a road where they could be picked up. One pilot who could not find her way to a road was rescued by police officers. She was dehydrated and delusional.
Avoiding that nightmarish situation was the main thought in Martin’s mind as he struggled to stay aloft that morning. About nine miles after he disconnected from the plane, he sank to just 1,073 feet above the ground.
Durand took off at 10:10 a.m., 13 minutes after Martin.
His first goal was to survive that difficult early stretch. His second was to chase down Martin.
Growing up in a forested outpost not far from the Gold Coast of Australia, Durand had also come to the sport at an early age. His father, a skilled hang glider pilot, had purchased some property with an unusual perk: a private mountain.
After school, his father would take him up on tandem flights, during which Durand would toss paper airplanes, watching as they gently sank thousands of feet to the ground.
As soon as he was old enough to carry his own glider, at 14, he started flying himself. Nearly two decades later, his father was still the eighth-ranked pilot in Australia; the No. 1 spot belonged to Durand.
By then, Durand had built something recognizable to anyone in sports marketing as a brand. He was not just winning competitions, he was doing so with a charismatic flair that stood out even among the rugged daredevils around him. He was supremely confident in his skills and almost pathologically energetic, spending nine months of the year on the road and developing a reputation for his practical jokes and partying.
The sponsors embraced him — first industry stalwarts like Moyes Delta Gliders, an Australian manufacturer, and then mainstream brands like Red Bull, the energy drink maker with an eye on adrenaline seekers.
“Everyone likes Jonny unless you’re a woman whose heart he broke,” said Timothy Ettridge, who encouraged Durand to go to Zapata and volunteered as his driver.
In 2009, Durand flew 323 miles from the clearing atop his family’s mountain, still the longest mountain flight in the history of the sport. For the purists, who believe that hang gliding should never require mechanical assistance like towing, it was perhaps the greatest prize.
But for Durand, the larger goal still loomed. He wanted the absolute distance record. And he knew where he had to go to get it.
After he spent a year bouncing among Brazil, Italy and Australia, his trip to Texas stood out not only for its lofty ambition but for its sheer unpleasantness. He had been to Zapata once, several years earlier, to endure three weeks of bad weather that allowed him to stage only a few disappointing flights, one of which ended with a terrifying landing, so he knew what to expect.
“Hot and dry, long days,” Durand said. “I knew it wasn’t exactly going to be a holiday out there.
“But the margaritas are fantastic.”
Thirty miles from Zapata, Durand spotted Martin 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. It was also, because of the federally restricted airspace around the city’s airport, the closest thing to an obstacle in the course the men were taking.
Among the more improbable dangers of the sport was the risk of being struck by an airplane. Martin had once come within a dozen feet of such an accident. But of greater concern was this: A hang gliding flight that crossed into restricted airspace was ineligible for the record book.
This was one of the few rules that the two men had to observe during their flight. They also could not be towed higher than 1,000 meters, travel too close to the clouds or fly for more than a half-hour after sunset. These rules were strictly enforced using the flight recording equipment they carried. The previous longest flight ever made — 438 miles — was not in the record book because of a technicality.
Durand kept clear of the Laredo airport, while Martin dared to get closer. But both skirted it safely.
“That was the first time I took a deep breath,” Durand said.
The conditions had started to improve. 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 great afternoon conditions.
The fight for survival had now turned into a more straightforward test of endurance.
A key to a long-distance flight is to relax. When pilots are tense, flying can offer a Pilates-level workout as the core muscles strain rather than hang loosely in the harness. Maneuvering with the control bar — pulling in to speed up, pushing out to slow down, shifting left or right to bank into turns — should require about as much pressure as pushing a full grocery cart. But over the course of the day, the feat they were trying to pull off could be compared to pushing a full grocery cart across an entire state.
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 occasionally 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.
After spending several hours hunting for thermals alone, each man could now watch the other as well, essentially doubling their chances of finding areas of lift. Martin compared the approach to professional bike racing, in which competitors cluster until breaking away.
And Durand and Martin flew together well. A few years earlier, the two men had jointly set the record for the longest flight on the East Coast, 283 miles, flying from Central Florida deep into Georgia, eventually landing side by side.
They had similar flying styles. Both made quick decisions in the air and remained steady through difficult moments. And, setting them apart from other competitive pilots, they flew unusually fast, which eats up altitude quicker, believing the increased risk of an early landing was offset by the extra gain in mileage.
“We both know what the plan is: stay up and try to go as fast as we can,” Martin said.
After meeting up, the men took their first break: eating, stretching and taking pictures as they flew. And they shared a feeling they had until then been reluctant to voice: “The day is getting really good.”
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. At that speed, the world retreats fast; entire landscapes dissolve into broad swaths of color.
They reached well over a mile above the ground, nearly high enough to scrape the underbellies of the clouds.
At Uvalde, where the land brightens through a valley that nourishes herds of beef cattle, they forked west off U.S. Highway 83, which they had been following from above. They tracked State Highway 55, mimicking the curves of the Nueces River as it wound into theTexas Hill Country.
Though they were not tethered in any way to these roads, they used them like landmarks to help guide their flight, even as they occasionally diverted miles from them to pursue areas with better flying conditions.
The Hill Country was known as the most technically challenging segment of the trip. The ridges and folds in the earth stir up the wind, making the air more violent and unpredictable. The rising terrain eats at the altitude from below while providing few places to land. Many record attempts fell short there.
For the first time all day, nearly 240 miles into the journey, Durand seemed to have an edge, soaring comfortably at 7,000 feet while Martin descended to nearly 2,000 feet.
Durand, anticipating the difficult terrain, had decided to fly more cautiously, slowing to preserve altitude. He had once been forced to land in the area — “the scariest landing I’ve ever had,” he said — and was not eager to repeat the experience.
Martin, though, had maintained his aggressive approach, costing him the height he had worked so hard throughout the day to gain.
At one point, hours earlier, Martin had been forced to enter what looked from above like a mini-tornado. It was a dust devil, a thermal strong enough to suck up a column of dust and other debris and which any experienced pilot knew should generally be avoided. But if he had not gone higher, Martin faced a difficult landing — and no record.
Experienced pilots are like risk calculators, rapidly weighing the dangers of any course of action. Martin carried two reserve parachutes, rather than the customary one, to provide the extra security he needed to push the odds.
Inside that dust devil, the air had churned violently around him. A roller coaster, which provides momentary loss of gravity during drops and the accelerating forces of it during fast turns, may be the most apt analogy. At the time, the gamble had paid off, giving him thousands of feet of extra altitude.
But now he was uncomfortably low again, searching for any promising thermal as he watched Durand all but disappear ahead of him.
The Race Is On
It took Martin almost an hour to catch back up. Both men had made it through the Hill Country, onto the spare, short grass savanna of the Edwards Plateau.
By 4:38, shortly before some of the workers of the world below finished the labors of an unremarkable Tuesday, the two men were flying side by side again. They had traveled 280 miles.
Durand was mugging for his video camera, describing his excitement and, occasionally, not forgetting how he financed his lifestyle, giving shout-outs to his sponsors.
“I think we’re going to do it,” he said. “I’m a real happy man right now. Oh my God.”
By then, the other pilots who had launched that morning were already on the ground and heading back to Zapata. Volk had gone the farthest, about 230 miles, followed by Lehmann at about 215. Pinto, dealing with an equipment malfunction, had landed after just 40 miles. Straub had set down at 160 miles after a particularly violent thermal.
“Basically, I got scared,” Straub said. “Dustin and Jonny experienced the same thing, and they stayed in it.”
As the other pilots drove south, they marveled that Durand and Martin remained in the air and on pace for the record. The wind remained strong and steady, averaging 23 m.p.h. The sky was still thick with clouds. The sun was still high. And on nearly every climb, they were soaring to nearly touch the clouds.
“That is when we knew they had a chance,” Lehmann said. “Everything was on their side. Now it was just a matter of staying up.”
The contest between the two men had 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. They had by now traded the front spot more than a dozen times.
After two hours of flying close together, suddenly, Martin shot miles ahead.
They were above a lonely stretch, where the few signs of civilization included fields of enormous windmills. Durand strained his eyes to the horizon: “He’s really far in front.”
The day was getting late, and Durand was getting low enough that he was more concerned about landing than he was about catching up. He forced himself to switch his mind-set from winning the contest to staying in the air long enough to break the distance record.
“Before I knew it, he had 10 or 15 miles on me again,” Durand said. “I thought, that’s it, he’s got the world record.”
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 in shouting distance.
The two men were shocked to see each other again after nearly two hours apart. Durand, who had also been fixated on his GPS to mark the moment, was so surprised that he initially suspected that this was simply a random encounter with another recreational hang glider.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Durand said. “I thought I’d never see him again.”
They circled each other as they exceeded the longest distance.
For Martin, though, the accomplishment was dulled by a growing dread. He thought he had traveled safely ahead of his competitor, but Durand had pushed hard to regain his altitude and flown fast enough to make up the lost ground. Now the two men were even.
The contest was falling into a pattern that he knew too well. He would build a lead, and at the last minute, Durand would seize it. In competitions, the two men often finished first and second, but as Durand noted, “Usually it’s me in first.”
Martin said: “I had made the breakaway, and it didn’t really work. Here’s the guy I’ve got to beat, and now we’re neck and neck and there is no energy left in the atmosphere and nothing really to separate us.”
Around the world, hang glider pilots were calling one another with the news that Durand and Martin were competing for the longest flight ever in the sport. Thousands of pilots gathered around computer screens to track their progress online.
In California, workers at the Wills Wing factory tracked the flight on computers and smartphones, rooting on Martin.
“There was a lot of excitement for sure,” said Mike Meier, a co-owner. “You’re watching someone do something that’s never been done before.”
In Australia, where Durand is popular, hang glider pilots roused themselves from sleep to watch the final hours unfold in an act of national solidarity.
Driving 70 m.p.h. to keep up with the hang gliders from below, Ettridge started receiving dozens of calls and text messages from pilots around the world, wanting to know if the reports could really be accurate. He eventually stopped picking up his phone.
The Final Push
The cooling air was calming after the restlessness of the long summer day.
It was 8:15. The thick cover of clouds had whittled to one tiny puff, under which Durand and Martin converged to make their final climb. The phrase pilots use for this moment, when the thermals disappear almost at once, is “switched off.”
A modern competition hang glider has a “glide ratio” of 15 to 1, which means for every foot it descends vertically, it will travel 15 feet horizontally over the land. That descent is almost imperceptible, but the reality was that Durand and Martin were proving the old saying about what goes up.
As they fought gravity’s grasp, tiny decisions would make a huge difference.
Martin, dogged by his past failures, was almost resigned to defeat. Over the course of the day, he had held the lead for more than six hours, while Durand had led for just an hour and a half. The rest of the time, like now, the two had flown side by side.
“I thought, there is a damn good chance he’s going to outfly me at the end here,” Martin said. “It seemed inevitable.”
Durand was no more confident. He was elated but also worn out. The night before, when Martin had made an early retreat to bed, Durand had stayed out shooting pool and buying drinks. Now Martin could see him rocking in his harness, stretching his neck, looking ready for the long day to end.
“I knew he was wasted,” Martin said. “I took note of it because I was feeling strangely fresh.”
But it was more than just the physical toll. In races, there are finish lines, a clear moment when a goal is met, an event ended. But setting a record like this is an open-ended proposition.
After battling so hard just to catch up with Martin, Durand had filled with relief when they broke the old mark.
“I let my mind slip a little,” Durand said. “I wasn’t really thinking about trying to fly as far as I could at that point. It’s like running a marathon, and once you reach the finish line, you aren’t really eager to keep running.”
The pilots flew cautiously as their margin for error continued to erode. They stayed close as they circled, blown along by the wind. Durand was restless, leaving tiny pockets of lift before they were tapped out. Martin, worried that his rival would catch something better, trailed just behind him defensively.
Then, at 8:34, Martin hit a small thermal. The pocket of lift was so light that earlier in the day he might not have even noticed it. So light, in fact, 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
As they glided toward the earth, details that had been lost for the better part of the day re-emerged one by one. Patches of green revealed individual trees, trees revealed leaves. They crossed over some cliffs and above an expanse of farmland, a welcome sight for pilots looking for a place to land.
Durand, no longer concerned about going as far as he could, lined up his landing along a road so he could be picked up easily. He skimmed low over a dry field, approaching a farmhouse shaded by a cluster of trees. He unzipped his harness, feeling a sense of relief as his feet dropped under him. He turned into the wind to come to a gentle stop.
He 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. The flight would have taken about an hour in a commercial plane; by hang glider, it had taken nearly 11 hours.
As soon as his feet reunited with the ground, Durand sent a message from his flight tracker that was seen by people watching the final moments online around the world: “I just landed and would like a margarita.”
Martin had taken his chances, putting the wind squarely at his back to gain as much extra mileage as possible. He no longer had any fears about where to land. He just wanted to keep flying.
Later, after he 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.
But in his final airborne moments, Martin was in no hurry for the ground to resume its claim on him. The sun was disappearing beneath the horizon, and the moon had already emerged. There was no euphoria, no exhaustion befitting the conclusion of an epic race. Just the quiet contentment of a man in his element, savoring the end of the longest flight of its kind ever made — cheeks in the wind, like a bird.