IT WAS MORE than a year later than initially expected — and unexplained eight months after its ground tests — but state-owned AVIC’s giant seaplane, the AG600 (above), has finally made its maiden flight. Codenamed Kunlong or the Giant Fish Dragon (Kun was the monstrous fish form of the mythical Peng bird), China’s first indigenous large amphibious aircraft took off from Zhuhai in southern Guangdong Province today. After a one-hour flight over the South China Sea, it returned to flag-waving crowds and martial music.
The AG600 is capable of carrying 50 people and staying airborne for half a day. Its purported mission will be maritime rescue, fighting forest fires and marine monitoring.
However, planes that can operate on water have military value to a country whose national interests concern the disputed waters of the East and South China seas and the increasing projection of littoral power. Japan uses its four Shinmaywa US-2s and three other older seaplanes to patrol islands.
As we noted last year:
The turboprop AG600 could undertake patrol and supply roles for China’s expanding islands in the South China Sea (all that dredging creates ideal landing channels for seaplanes), and, alongside China’s blue-water amphibious assault vessels, be part of an amphibious assault force. With a range of 5,000 kilometres, they could project power far beyond the littoral.
That is the same range as the large military cargo plane, the Y-20, which made its maiden flight in 2013.
The third of China’s trinity of home-grown large aircraft is the C919 passenger aircraft, a potential rival to the Airbus 320 and Boeing’s new generation 737, which had its maiden flight in May and is now undergoing long-flight testing. The second prototype C919 made its maiden flight earlier this month.