Flying in China

A story by Steve Millard.   (June 17 2011)

As a long-standing member of the Pennine Soaring Club , the vast majority of my flying has been around Parlick Hill. However living over an hours drive away in Liverpool, I often grumbled about the time spent getting there and getting back again and how the weather conditions so often seem to be different when I arrived then what was expected when I set off. Nevertheless, I've had many a happy day flying there, though almost always landing at the bottom landing field. Going cross-country has never really been a major priority for me. I'm honest enough to myself to admit this.

Last year brought about a completely new set of circumstances that would have a big impact on my paragliding. I chose to take up a new employment position in China, at a city called Suzhou, near Shanghai. Teaching in an English-speaking University in a country where virtually no one speaks a word of English outside the campus brought its own set of day-to-day challenges. A simple task in England such as taking a bus or taxi can be a major problem in China when you don't speak Chinese. Nevertheless, I took my paragliding going to China with the intention of flying.

In Shanghai there is a small but very active group of expatriates and local Chinese paragliding pilots. I soon made contact with these and tackled with the logistics of flying in China. It's certainly not like going flying in England. The nearest and best local paragliding site is at Fuyang. It's about 150 miles away in a straight line. However the one-hour drive from Liverpool to Parlick pales into insignificance when compared to getting from Suzhou to Fuyang by public transport. It's a minimum six-hour journey each way by bus, train, train, bus and private van pickup. This journey is not made easy by not speaking Chinese. If you want to fly here then you have to make the effort… A big effort!

Flying for the first five months in China was thwarted by not having a paraglider! I sent all my winter clothes, heavy books and other personal effects together with my wing to China by sea last July. They took two months to arrive, which was expected. However they were then locked up in Shanghai by the Chinese Customs for a further three months. Despite many efforts to negotiate with the customs and get these effects released, it was not until December that I finally got my wing back and was ready to fly. Unfortunately this delay missed some of the best flying weather of the year. What a blow!

Finally in December I made the trek from Suzhou-Fuyang and arrived at the paragliding centre. It was worth the effort. This is a large site with 400 m from top to bottom. The takeoff has been cleared of trees and is huge, about the size of a football field. The landing field is also large and is serviced by local Chinese entrepreneurs with small minivans, who will drive you all the way back to the top for about £3. China has invested in this paragliding centre and has resurfaced the road all the way from the bottom to the top. A purpose-built paragliding centre is nearing construction adjacent to the takeoff site.

My first weekend of flying in China saw unseasonably warm and sunny weather. December was like a pleasant English summers day. Unfortunately, it was equally warm at the bottom as the top and there was no wind and no significant thermal activity. All flying was simply top to bottom, with a few of the better pilots managing to extend their flights but still going down. Nevertheless I was happy to be flying my ageing Firebird Ignition and get my feet in the air again. Little did I know that these two days of top to bottom flights would be the only flying for the next four months. The winter months of China did not offer many flying opportunities. Coupled with work and other commitments, it was not until April that I next ventured to Fuyang to fly again. However by this time I had invested in a new wing,a Nova Mentor 2… My first new paraglider for nearly 10 years! :-) .


New Mentor-2, flying at Fuyang, China


This time, the weather conditions were completely different. Saturday was blown out but Sunday promised much better weather. Warm air and gentle winds were ideal for trying out the new wing. Gone were the 5-10 min flights of December. I was still going down… but 6 extended flights of 30-40 min were much more like it. With an Italian pilot friend, Maurizio, we decided to stay on for Monday + Tuesday because the forecasts were so good.

Monday was a perfect day for flying. Fuyang was now virtually empty. All the weekend pilots had returned to Shanghai and we had the place almost to ourselves. We took off together and for the first time I could connect with a thermal and finally see Fuyang from above the takeoff site. Woohoo…!!! Soon I was well above takeoff and very happy with my new wing. Maurizio, a seasoned cross-country pilot set off cross-country, to my surprise in a direction in front of the hill. I followed. A long glide across the local town, river and flatlands then soon was connecting with and adjacent mountain ridge and scratching back up again.

Despite my new canopy with its impressive glide angle, Maurizio was the better pilot and I was always struggling to work my way up to his level. We progressed our way along the ridge but eventually I lost out and picked a safe landing site … Somewhere in China. The problem for me now was how to get back without speaking a word of Chinese. Interesting.

Maurizio however was not feeling 100% and said later he was not up for continuing his flight. He saw my plight and descended over 1000 m to land by me so that we could get back together. He speaks Chinese! :-) What a gentleman…


Artik M
Maurizio with his Niviuk Artik landing close to me…

I was very happy. My first cross-country flight on the new canopy.My first cross-country flight in China. It was only 12 km, but nevertheless a significant achievement for me.



Landing with local farmers, on a hillside terrace, somewhere in China…


The flying weather on Tuesday was even better. Unfortunately for Maurizio, he was sick. What a bummer! He was lying in bed with a fever… and perfect flying conditions outside. After talking/commiserating for most of the morning, I eventually decided to fly alone and went to takeoff site. Perfect flying conditions again.China at its best.J I took off into a thermal and was soon over 1000 m above the takeoff. Looking down I was thinking “what to do now?” Flying away from the hillside would be easy… But how to get back again… In China! Nevertheless, I set a goal of reaching the first time point from the previous day’s flight and then getting back again, the landing field. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Several times on the way out and the way back I thought I would be landing. However, I made it. 

On the final glide to the landing field, I was surprised to hear Maurizio on the radio. He had recovered sufficiently to get up and was now at the takeoff, ready to fly. This inspired me not to go down to the original goal, but to work my way back up successfully to take off. Flying with Maurizio again, all the language and retrieval concerns went away.

We gained height quickly together and set off again on the previous day’s track. Connecting with the second mountainside, I started gaining height. However this time it was Maurizio’s misfortune to go down. He managed to track back and just scrape over the river for an easier retrieval. Mindful of his generosity of the previous day, and also keenly aware of my linguistic limitations, I also tracked back and comfortably made it to the landing field with all the Chinese minibuses waiting to help.

Finding and picking up Maurizio however was not easy. His radio and mobile telephone phone were both unresponsive and my communications with the driver were 100% sign language. Eventually however it all came together for a happy ending. A good day’s flying. It’s only 18 km but for a hardened non-cross-country flyer, it’s a personal best. :-)

The track of that day

So now… the flying season in China has definitely begun. Game on! 
The days of ParlickHill now seem so far away.


Steve Millard
By Steve Millard