DUANYUAN, China — Tucked away down an unpaved cart path, behind a high brick fence, is about the strangest thing anyone could expect to find in the middle of rural nowhere, short of a UFO — an “experimental base” for building one.
Well, technically, it’s not unidentified, and it’s not flying, but what Du Wenda is building here in eastern China is indisputably an object.
Du, the son of a horse-cart driver, is founder and president of the Global UFO Scientific and Technological Research Institute of Xiao County of Anhui Province, an institute with a single proposition: to make a flying saucer for earthbound travel.
Lacking money, formal education and a full understanding of the science of flight, Du has an unlikely proposition. Certainly, the first test “flight,” observed by fewer than 20 people just before dusk Oct. 22 at his experimental base, did not conjure up images of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. The UFO-looking saucer, with huge horizontal rotors powered by a used eight-cylinder car engine, rose about 4 inches off the ground for five or six seconds, he said.
Du, 39, a former maintenance man, has spent $95,000 in 2 1/2 years, including his family’s savings, investor contributions and proceeds from the sale of a cow, but he remains undaunted.
“We are still thinking about ways to find more funds for this, because at a later stage, if we want to make this into a real product, we have to buy aviation engines and aviation materials,” said Du. “I don’t believe you have to think that building a flying saucer is that hard. What I’m building will have similar capabilities as a UFO, but the speed will be much slower.”
In the late 1950s, China’s countryside became the setting for Mao Tse-tung’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, during which tens of millions of farmers were exhorted to answer Mao’s call to help the country industrialize quickly by operating backyard blast furnaces to produce steel.
Today, some farmers are committing their livelihoods to the pursuit of seemingly impossible dreams, including in a few cases the building of a homemade flying machine, typically a helicopter or plane. It is a poignant quest to participate in a booming, industrializing society that still passes most of them by.
Du’s is perhaps the most outlandish of those dreams, but his experimental base could hardly be more modest. Until Du leased the land this year, farmers hauled bales of cotton every year to this three-acre tract to sell to the township government.
Parts of Du’s futuristic machine rest on concrete slabs where cotton once was stored. The guts of his contraption — it was disassembled after the Oct. 22 test — are surrounded by patches of sweet potatoes, turnips, cabbages and carrots being grown to feed about 20 workers devoted to the flying machine. The 17-foot-wide chassis and a main rotor sit next to a spinach patch.
The crops are there in part as a replacement for cash, because Du has been unable to pay his workers, and there is little prospect of paying them soon. The workers who remain, along with investors who have contributed about $50,000 to the project, believe the machine could become a profitable product.
Some, like Xu Ying, describe their belief as faith, in a way that hints at a search for meaning in the countryside. She quit her small business manufacturing clothes and her husband quit his accounting job at a state-owned company to work on Du’s flying machine not long after she heard about it from friends. The couple invested $2,400.
“It’s said to be the transportation tool of aliens,” said Xu, 54. “So I thought this thing that aliens have, can we have them, too?”
One recent weekday, Xu and a few other workers were taking calls from the Chinese news media, which, after a nationally televised segment on the project, has swamped them with coverage, all extremely skeptical.
“We do not like the satire, this way they say peasants are building this UFO,” Xu said. “Not only do they not support us, they did not comfort us spiritually.”
Xu and others have placed their faith in Du, a self-confident figure who established a local reputation as an inventor almost a decade ago, when he sold a patent for a bamboo-weaving machine to a coal mine company for more than $20,000.
Du has dreamed of flying saucers since he read a comic book in fifth grade that featured a UFO in a dogfight with an airplane. (The UFO won.) A graduate of middle school and vocational school, he has long read anything he could find on UFOs and on aviation. He spent many late nights drawing up plans, and he lost sleep when he couldn’t sort out the latest wrinkle in his theories.
He borrowed design theories from cars, airplanes and helicopters. He staged crude experiments to test his ideas, from tossing a homemade saucer as a child to operating a small battery-powered toy saucer that is sort of a miniature of his grand project. Two years ago, he earned a Chinese patent for his flying machine design, which includes horizontal rotors of differing sizes spinning in opposite directions at differing speeds.
“The UFO will have three functions: moving on the ground, in the air or underwater,” Du explained in an interview last week. It will be useful for short-distance travel, he said, because it would be unaffected by bad roads or traffic. China’s annual air show in Zhuhai invited him to show the saucer this week, and he is taking a small demonstration model.
Unfortunately, the demonstration version, a Styrofoam and plastic model on display at the institute’s office in the Xiao county seat, clearly demonstrates a fundamental obstacle confronting Du: aerodynamics.
As a UFO institute employee powered up the toy, its propellers whirring, it levitated off the ground and wobbled this way and that during its brief demonstration flight. It seems that it could sell as a toy — an option Du is pursuing — but it fails as a model for something larger. There is no question that a flying saucer can fly, but the problem is that without adjustable flaps like on a plane, or a tail rotor like on a helicopter, it is inherently unstable.
Du and his supporters have heard Chinese aerodynamics experts express such criticism, especially in news coverage in recent weeks, but have chosen to disregard their views.
“Because UFOs are different from airplanes, aviation experts are not qualified to comment on the UFO,” Du said. “Right now, there are no experts on the UFO, whether in China or in other countries.”
Xu said she felt rattled by some of the criticism but still believes in Du, noting that he has a patent. In fact, she worries about competition.
“Do you think that publishing a story outside the country will be bad for us?” Xu asked a visitor. “Because there are also people who are working on the same kind of project outside of the country. They might steal our technology.”