China to test the latest version of the world's largest amphibious aircraft

Boeing 737 sized aircraft can "ski" on water.
Ameya Paleja
A screen grab of the AG600 during a previous testSouth China Morning Post/ YouTube

China is set to test the latest prototype of its amphibious aircraft, the AG600, that will increase its maritime coverage to the entire South China Sea. The previous iterations of the aircraft have conducted separate trials on the land and sea in 2017 and 2020 respectively, South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported.

The South China Sea has become a contentious issue after China has claimed sovereignty over the region. Apart from untapped reserves of oil and natural gas, the region is also home to a third of the world's maritime trade routes and fisheries that could impact the food security of millions in the region. The U.S. and its allies are keen on protecting the rights of other island nations even as China flexes its muscle in the region. 

An amphibious aircraft, the size of a 737

According to China's latest five-year plan, the AG600 is strategically important for operating its bases in the South China Sea. While this is not a combat-ready aircraft, it can carry personnel and equipment to far-flung places in the region. The size of a Boeing 737, the aircraft is designed to ferry up to 50 passengers and can cruise at speeds of 310 miles an hour (500 kph). It has an endurance of up to 12 hours, SCMP reported.

China, however, claims that aircraft will be used in maritime patrols and search and rescue operations. It could also assign the aircraft for observing oceanic environments, exploring resources, or simply transporting people and cargo between islands. 

The AG600 design combines a boat underneath the massive aircraft to enable it to land on water. When arriving on land, the aircraft can swing out the rear wheels that are lined up along the fuselage while the nose wheel emerges from the keel of the boat.

China is also keen on using the AG600 as a firefighting measure. The boat-shaped underside allows the aircraft to ski on water and collects as much as 12 tonnes of water in its tanks in just 20 seconds. SCMP reports that this quantity of water could be used to fight fires over an area of 43,000 square feet (4,000 sq. m). 

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Delays in development

The previous iterations of the aircraft called Kunlong conducted their maiden flights on land and in the sea in 2017 and 2020 respectively but suffered delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the major research facilities for the aircraft maker, China Aviation Industry General Aircraft, is in the Hubei province was the epicenter of coronavirus infections. 

The other hurdle the aircraft has to overcome is its engines. SCMP reports that the WJ-6 turboprop engines used on the plane are based on the Soviet-era Ai-20 series belonging to the 1950s.  The aircraft was assembled in December and the four engines on the prototype were tested last week. The aircraft manufacturer is confident that the hundreds of hours of test flights conducted with the aircraft and the data it has gathered will help it overcome these issues. 

When the testing phase is completed, the AG600 will be the biggest amphibious aircraft in the world, leaving in its trail the Japanese US-2 and Russian BE-200 amphibious aircraft, SCMP said in its report.