China has unveiled the world’s largest amphibious aircraft, which is almost certain to play a key role in the disputed South China Sea.
Cheering crowds watched as the AG600 took to the skies today (Sunday, December 24) for its maiden flight.
The plane, codenamed “Kunlong” according to state news agency Xinhua, took off from the southern city of Zhuhai and landed after about an hour.
With a wingspan of 127 feet and powered by four turboprop engines, the aircraft can carry 50 people and stay airborne for 12 hours.
“Its successful maiden flight makes China among the world’s few countries capable of developing a large amphibious aircraft,” the chief designer, Huang Lingcai, told Xinhua.
While the aircraft has obvious military applications, Beijing says it will be used for firefighting and marine rescue.
Seventeen orders have been placed with state-owned manufacturer, the Aviation Industry Corp of China.
Even though it is about the size of a Boeing 737, the AG600 is still smaller than billionaire Howard Hughes’ flying boat, the Spruce Goose, which had a wingspan of 318 feet. However, it made only one brief flight in 1947.
The AG600 will be easily capable of reaching all of China’s island-building projects in the South China Sea.
James Char, a military analyst at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said: “Its 4,500km operational range and ability to land and take off from water makes it well suited for deployment over China’s artificial islands.
“The plane’s capacity and manoeuvrability makes it ideal for transporting materiel to those maritime features that are too structurally fragile to support runways.”
Beijing’s claims on almost the entirely of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in annual trade passes, is strongly contested by other countries.
The Philippines was one of the region’s strongest opponents of Chinese expansionism, and took a complaint to a United Nations-backed tribunal. The panel ruled last year that China’s territorial claims were without legal basis. However, the Philippines has backed off from the dispute under the Duterte administration.
The launch of the new aircraft is indicative of China’s rapidly modernising military. As we previously reported, it launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier, the Type 001A, in April.
Then, in November, we reported that China had launched a giant dredging ship, nicknamed the ‘Magic Island Maker‘.
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