The Chinese Farmers Taking to the Skies in Their Own Aircraft
ZHEJIANG, East China — Xu Bin presses the ignition on his bright yellow gyrocopter, and the propeller above his head sputters into life.
The dozen villagers who have stopped to watch the 47-year-old’s test flight look skeptical for a moment. But the engine soon gathers momentum, its roar drowning out the quacking of wild ducks in the nearby fields.
The aircraft accelerates down the country road, then — almost tentatively — lifts off the ground. It hovers for an agonizing second, before climbing steadily toward the blue skies above. The onlookers grab their smartphones and begin snapping photos.
For Xu, taking to the sky in his own plane has become routine: He has built and flown more than 40 different aircraft over the past 15 years.
“When you’re flying high, it feels like your view widens,” he tells Sixth Tone. “Your mood suddenly lightens.”
The Zhejiang province native is one of the leaders of a thriving grassroots aviation scene that has taken root across the Chinese countryside. At least 100 people from all kinds of backgrounds — from farmers to barbers and doctors — regularly fly their own makeshift, self-assembled planes, Xu estimates.
Before COVID-19 hit, the community would arrange regular meetups to test fly each other’s planes and swap tips, Xu says. Now, they have to make do with sharing banter and clips via the social app WeChat.
Xu has been obsessed with flying since he was a child. Growing up in Xiakou — a small town in eastern China — life was often monotonous, revolving around the family farm and his father’s carpentry workshop. But one day, the then-third grader saw an amazing sight: an airplane soaring in the air above his hometown.
“From that moment, the idea (of flying a plane) started to grow in my head,” he says.
The dream of building his own plane began to form when he was in junior high school. His family had opened a small factory to manufacture water pump parts. Xu began to train as a mechanic, and discovered a passion for it.
He dropped out of high school in his second year and devoted himself to being a mechanic full-time. But when he wasn’t helping out with the family business, Xu was working on his secret project designing a small helicopter using the knowledge he’d gleaned from reading aviation magazines.
“I was doing it stealthily back then,” says Xu. “I would drop everything and delve into the plane parts as soon as my father left home. When I heard the sound of the door unlocking, I’d hide the parts and go back to my normal work.”
It took just two months to assemble his first rotorcraft, with a rickety frame made from steel tubes, an engine extracted from a motorized rickshaw, and a wooden propeller.
The young man dragged it to the center of the town to conduct his first test flight. But after 15 minutes of the blades whirring, the chopper failed to take off. Xu sat disconsolately in the pilot’s seat, while his neighbors mocked him mercilessly.
Many more failed attempts followed: It would take another 10 years for Xu to make his first successful flight. But the day finally came in the summer of 2006. After being pulled along the road by a car to gain velocity, Xu’s latest aircraft — a 130-kilogram frame with 7.5-meter-long rotor wings — lifted off and flew in the air for 25 minutes.
The young mechanic’s feat made national news at the time. Chinese state broadcaster CCTV hailed him for making history by becoming the first person from Zhejiang province to successfully fly his own self-built aircraft. But the story also aroused serious concern among Chinese officials.
A few days later, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) declared Xu’s flight an “illegal activity” and said he was banned from flying in the future.
Even Xu admits that his planes were a safety hazard in those days. “Honestly, I was quite worried up there,” he recalls. “At that time, my plane was built quite roughly, and I felt like many parts were unreliable.”
Despite the CAAC’s warning, Xu continued quietly improving his rotorcraft and building more advanced models. To avoid getting into trouble, he decided to avoid urban areas during test flights and never flew higher than 100 meters above the ground.
But he couldn’t avoid clashing with his family. Xu’s hobby was costing a fortune, his spending on parts swallowing up almost all the profits from his father’s factory. Xu estimates he’s probably spent over 2 million yuan in total over the years on building aircraft.
“I remember one year I received 500,000 or 600,000 yuan from my family, and by the end of the year I’d poured all of that money into my planes,” says Xu.
After several bruising, hourslong arguments, Xu realized he needed to make a change. If he was going to keep his dream of flying going, he was going to have to work out how to make money from it.
Over the next decade, Xu developed new rotorcraft models that were lighter, steadier, and safer to fly. He began offering his services as an aerial photographer and crop-duster, until the advent of drones killed this lucrative side gig. He would also make some extra money by manufacturing aircraft parts for other hobbyists.
Now, Xu aims to create a lightweight rotorcraft that can be rolled out for the mass market, so that anyone in China can purchase and fly their own plane.
It’s an ambitious vision, but Xu insists it’s achievable. According to Chinese civil aviation regulations, ultralight aircraft that weigh less than 116 kilograms don’t require an airworthiness certificate and pilots don’t need a license to fly them.
And there’s plenty of potential demand. According to Xu, there are at least 50,000 aviation hobbyists scattered across China, but only a fraction of them actually build their own planes from scratch like he does.
The main obstacle, Xu says, will be China’s strict airspace regulations. There have been some moves to open up more space for civil aviation in recent years, but amateur aviators are mostly restricted to flying near licensed airports and pilot zones.
“It would be great if a flying zone could be created in the suburbs of every small county, where hobbyists could freely fly their planes,” Xu says. “This would spur the development of the whole industry.”
Xu believes there will be a bigger market for his rotorcraft if China’s amateur aviation scene gains greater public exposure. Though Chinese media has covered the community a few times over the years, he feels they’re still largely unknown to most people.
In 2016, Xu rented a 500-square-meter warehouse next to a highway in Zhejiang and converted it into an amateur aviation museum, displaying a range of self-built aircraft. But the venture abruptly came to an end when the landlord withdrew the lease two years later.
After that, Xu took a job as an engineer with a company in the central Hunan province that develops lightweight airplanes for commercial use. The firm, however, folded earlier this year, and since then he has moved back to Zhejiang to continue working on his rotorcraft by himself.
Despite these setbacks, Xu remains upbeat about the future. He’s convinced his dream of commercializing his rotorcraft is feasible. One day, he hopes his planes will be wrapped in delicate packaging and stacked on supermarket shelves all over China.
“I’ve realized my dream of flying,” he says. “I haven’t realized my second dream so far, but I’ll keep trying.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Xu Bin flys in the sky in Jiangshan, Zhejiang province, October 2021. Lü Xiao/Sixth Tone)