The average person is wrong about hang glider pilots, says Jon Durand.
“Mostly people just think we’re lunatics trying to kill ourselves,” says the 32-year-old. “[But] I want to take hang gliding to the masses, like surfing has done. That’s my aim… ”
A noble aim, but one with a Catch-22. Because whenever Australia’s greatest flyer of the past decade appears on TV, the better to publicise hang-gliding to the masses he, well… he mostly looks like he’s trying to kill himself. Most spectacular was Durand’s conquest of the dangerous, awesome and infamously fickle Morning Glory cloud on the border of outback Queensland and the Northern Territory.
Undular bore clouds, like the ’Glory, are so rare that they occur in a handful of places on Earth – and even then sporadically. They’re a trick of meteorology and topography that grooms and rolls a surging virtual cliff face of heavy, wet air as it rushes in from the sea. As it wedges itself beneath the warmer layer blanketing the land, the racing front becomes visible as a rushing, horizon-to-horizon tube of white, up to two kilometres high. It balsts inland at up to 140km/h, with a riot of upwards thrust at its leading edge – but in its immediate wake, just past an invisible edge, is a potentially deadly torrent of turbulence.
The world’s largest wave. “It’s like a tsunami in the sky,” says Jon.
In perfect conditions, on a handful of days a year, half-a-dozen or more Morning Glory clouds stack up one after another in one corner of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Nobody knows why. Each is pursued by that chaotic mess of turbulence – a wake that could easily swat a glider to the ground; in a steep down-draft, his parachute would not even open. Jonny Durand rode it as part of Red Bull’s Glorious Days project in 2009. Jonny did acrobatics on its lip – the first man ever to do so. Jonny earned a sotto voiceover and a spot on morning TV. (They asked him if he was trying to kill himself.)
The thing is: he’s not. Jonny Durand was born to fly.
Jon’s father, Jon Snr, was a peripatetic American surfer who pioneered the wave-rich areas of Asia and the South Pacific in the 1970s. When he settled in Australia in 1979, happenstance dropped the nascent Durand family onto a plot of land at Beechmont, overlooking the Gold Coast. By accident, it turned out to be one of the nation’s best hang-gliding spots.
The relatively crude, terrifyingly unsafe gliders of the age appealed to the elder Durand’s sense of adventure.
“I look at all those old-timers’ gliders now and I just shake my head,” says Jon. “They’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I flew that one of Mount Kilimanjiro!’ I go, ‘Are you crazy! I wouldn’t fly that off a five foot hill!’” But Jon was surrounded by the cream of Australia’s pilots by the time he could stand – and they were good tutors.
The boy flew tandem at nine; by the time he was legally able to compete solo, at 15, Jon came third in his first contest – beating home three of the top six pilots in the country. He’s been traveling the world ever since, a perennial top contender in World Championships, despite his still tender years – competitive hang-gliding, for all the apparent lunacy of non-competition aerobatics, is a game of strategy and luck; top flyers push hard for world titles well into their fifties. Jon’s enviable winning record in top-tier events throughout Europe, Asia and North and South America (not to mention nine straight annual victories in his local pet event, the Canungra Classic – which also happens to be Australia’s second highest rated contest) has keep him overseas up to nine months a year ever since.
Not that it’s always smooth sailing. Barely old enough to drive, but back at home, Jon once tried to land on top of his local mountain in strong turbulence.
“I just fell out of the sky,” he says. “I thought I was going to land on a barbed wire fence, so I tried to turn to land in a different field. And I ended up in an embankment head first.”
In severe pain, Jon drove himself to the CAT scan, and then the E.R., where they strapped him to a gurney and announced that he’d cracked his C1 and C2 vertebrae. “They left me there a long time,” he says. “But I’d broken a lot of bones skateboarding. I know how that feels. I didn’t think it was that bad.”
“It turned out it was just that the spacing in my vertebrae is almost double in the first couple compared to all the rest. They said I was born like that, and that it actually probably saved me.”
Last year, despite a slow recovery from a torn ACL in 2011, Jon decided to start breaking records. One was the 12-year-old mark for the world’s longest flight, which took 11 straight hours in the air, over 760km – further than Brisbane to Sydney – alongside a mate from Arizona, Dustin Martin
“We started in on the Mexican border… or, er, just far enough into the US that the NRA’s anti-immigrint militias wouldn’t shoot at us,” he grins. Landing at 9pm, Jon noticed Dustin circling, turned to check he was okay. Momentum checked, Jon landed less than 4km behind his friend, in whose name the new record stays.
“So ten days later, when everyone had gone home, I went back and got a world record for distance to a declared destination,” grins Jon. “I flew 560km or so, which is still like Brisbane to Newcastle, so at least I managed to keep that one!”
Now almost fully recovered, 2013 will see Jon paring back his competitive commitments to focus on more innovative feats. (Although he’ll have competition in the air, even if it’s not always human: incredibly, glider pilots are regularly attacked by birds on the wing. “wedge-tailed eagles are the worst!” he says. “They put big tears in your glider and everything – and magpies come up from below you and tear at your wrists where your gloves stop. They draw blood every time!”)
Foremost of all will be trying, once again, to take his sport to the next level: finding ways to expose its grandeur to the masses. In China, perhaps. One project may see him flying from a skyscraper and across a river for the benefit of a mooted 500 million viewers. A perfectly reasonable challenge for one of the world’s greatest plots – but an incomprehensible risk in the eyes of the half-a-billion laymen watching.
Jonny Durand is not a lunatic and he’s not trying to kill himself. He just looks like he is.
Not killing himself. China building flight? Perfectly safe in a potentially deadly situation. Taking his sport to the masses. In front of an audience of half a billion. On TV. Looking like he’s trying to kill himself.