When he quit school at the age of 14, Xiong Tianhua would stand in the fields where he tended cattle all day and stare up at the sky. While the cows chewed grass and lazily flicked away flies with their tails in the humid heat of the southern Guangdong countryside, Xiong was transfixed by the giant 'metal birds' that flew overhead. 'How do they fly,' he would wonder to himself, before pondering a question at the very heart of aviation: 'Is it more like a bird or a dragonfly?' Xiong has spent his life trying to find an answer to that conundrum. The 34-year-old from Dongguan is one of a growing number of DIY engineers using simple materials to make objects ranging from planes to submarines and robots. Using wood, metal, nails and lawnmower engines for parts, and the hills and fields around his home for runways, Xiong made five unsuccessful attempts at building his own flying machine. But with his sixth attempt in April, Xiong finally achieved take-off. With a friend on board, the ramshackle plane, named Dream Catcher, soared a few dozen metres off the ground and for 90 glorious seconds he felt his lifelong ambition had been fulfilled. Until a cracked propeller brought him back down to earth with a bump. Xiong first's flirtation with flight came at the age of 11. He took two sticks, made them into a cross and then covered it with a piece of nylon. Charging down a hill he let the kite go, but it tumbled to the ground. Despite leaving school at 14 to work in the fields, Xiong persevered in his quest to learn about the principles of flight. He borrowed middle-school physics textbooks and stayed up late into the night trying to absorb fundamentals such as air movement, dynamics and peripheral force. 'I looked at how birds and dragonflies flew and landed for years, and I read that the Wright Brothers had done the same thing and created a plane,' he says. In 1994 Xiong went to Baiyun Airport in Guangzhou to observe how planes landed and took off. 'The principles were the same as birds and dragonflies, as they used their tails for control. At that moment, I knew it was time to do it,' he says. Orville and Wilbur Wright would have been proud of his first effort - consisting of a small bike engine, a sheet of metal, two bicycle wheels and a beam from his grandfather's house as the propeller. And the brothers would have sympathised with the result as well - Xiong charged down a hill before crashing spectacularly in front of curious villagers. As he lay in the wreckage and pondered the lack of uplift, he glanced at his brother's motorcycle. Its engine would provide significantly more thrust than the eight horsepower original engine, so he took apart his brother's bike, put the plane back together again and once again headed to the top of the hill. But more thrust did not translate into more uplift, and the result was the same. Xiong's aviation ambitions were put on hold for the next decade as the realities of life forced him to work in Dongguan as a hardware manufacturer. He worked hard and saved hard, and by 2004 owned his own hardware store. With time and a little more money, he once again started to dream about flying. 'I built a delta-wing plane in 2004 and another in October 2005,' he says. 'I upgraded the frame from iron to stainless steel and used an engine from a drone that had 22 horsepower, but I still failed.' Sitting alone in his house surrounded by technical drawings of planes and all manner of data and mathematical formulas, Xiong was struggling for answers. But in 2006 he discovered the internet, and everything started to change. 'I made friends online with many people like me. We improved our designs and skill levels quickly by sharing our experiences,' he says, pointing at pictures of a German-made F33 engine that is popular among amateur aviation geeks and a Yamaha 125 lawnmower engine. Xiong became more and more confident, and finally in April he achieved his elusive takeoff. While his immediate ambition of flying has been fulfilled, the sky remains the limit. He flew for 90 seconds at a maximum height of 70 metres last time - next he is aiming for 400 metres and 10 minutes. 'I think anyone can make their own plane, you only need to understand the scientific principles,' he says. One man who understands the scientific principles is Yang Weimin, a Shenzhen photographer who made his maiden flight on a self-assembled plane on July 30. His 25-minutes aloft attracted the attention of the mainland media, but Yang says he was frustrated at the lingering belief he was some kind of loony. 'I've received no support from the government or the public,' he says. 'If we succeed, it is like we are a novelty item. If we fail, we are eccentrics or crackpots.' Yang, who is considering starting his own DIY plane club, says people shouldn't sniff at amateur engineers who show creativity and ingenuity. 'We are just interested in science and technology,' he says. 'Our country would be more innovative and developed if more people joined us and just did it.' Homemade engineering isn't limited to flying machines. In 2007, Tao Xiangli from Anhui province built a six-metre submarine from metal barrels and various parts he cobbled together. The 1.8-tonne, one-man vessel was equipped with pressure gauges, oxygen tanks, headlights, a camera and a television monitor. Earlier this year, Wu Yulu, a farmer and part-time inventor from the Tongzhou district, outside Beijing, made headlines when he revealed a collection of 30 robots he had built since his was a small boy. The 49-year-old had never taken any technical classes, but nevertheless managed to build robots that would clean, wash dishes and pull rickshaws. Although he had little interest in schoolwork, Wu was fascinated by machines and made his first mini electrical device when he was eight. 'I think producing machines is a talent I was born with,' he says. 'It's in my blood.' Wu's enthusiasm hasn't faded with marriage and children, and his wife often worries about accidents resulting from his experiments. His cigarette lighting-robot may have been a mistake. He forgot to turn off a transformer for it before going to help a neighbour with his harvest and it overheated, causing a fire that destroyed the family home. An explosion from a salvaged battery also left him with serious burns. But Wu is undeterred and hopes one of his creations might eventually be counted among great Chinese inventions such as the compass. Besides, he's getting some technical input these days. His second son, Wangyang, who is studying software design in college, shares his interest and helps with his inventions.