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JIANGMEN, China (Reuters Life!) - It may look like a lark, but growing numbers of students are flocking to the China Birdman contest, launching themselves off a 10-meter cliff to test their engineering skills and home-made flying machines.
"Everyone dreams of flying," said Liang Chunming, a 20-year-old computer science student who plowed a delta-wing glider into the lake and had to be fished out by rescue boats.
The China Birdman competition, now in its sixth year, is modeled on more established global competitions including the Bognor Regis Birdman in England..
It has been growing in popularity across China. This year it drew around 40 entries, including flying-mad students from more than twenty universities and secondary schools nationwide.
Besides being a fun day out, with would-be pilots in colorful plastic dragons and horses sinking to wild cheers, others have deeper ambitions for the contest.
"It gets the students thinking and nurtures innovation. In China traditional education emphasizes memorization but lacks in developing individuality and inspiration," said Wang Liang, a professor at North China Electric Power University who helped his 12 students design and build three gliders for around $5,000.
Among the handful of foreigners taking part was Sean Frawley, a New Yorker who works at a battery factory near Guangzhou on the Pearl River Delta in southern China.
"This competition is much more fun. In England everyone brings commercial hang gliders but here everyone has built their machine. No one has bought anything so there's a lot more variety and creativity," said Frawley, whose albatross-like white glider crashed after a wing spar snapped in mid-air.
On a bruising day for man and machine, one flight stood out. Middle-aged Tian Xing managed to glide 62 meters (yards) in a craft he fashioned with a couple of friends to snare victory over Jiangmen's placid lake.
For sheer guts and determination, however, 72-year-old Peng Xiaoxian finally managed to get his yellow paraglider airborne, soaring 59 meters while watched by nervous yet vocal fans.
"My flying machine is a paraglider ... and the bits on the back move like a fish's tail," said the China Birdman veteran.
"I mostly wanted to innovate and to make a breakthrough in human-powered flight."
Editing by Chris Lewis