China’s homegrown AG600, the world’s largest amphibious aircraft in production, yesterday took to the skies for its maiden flight.
The plane, codenamed “Kunlong,” took off from the southern city of Zhuhai and landed after about an hour-long flight, according to state news agency Xinhua.
With a wingspan of 38.8m and powered by four turboprop engines, the aircraft is capable of carrying 50 people and can stay airborne for 12 hours.
“Its successful maiden flight makes China among the world’s few countries capable of developing a large amphibious aircraft,” chief designer Huang Lingcai told Xinhua.
The aircraft has military applications, but would be used for firefighting and marine rescue, with at least 17 orders placed so far with state-owned manufacturer Aviation Industry Corp of China (中國航空工業), state media reported.
While it is about the size of a Boeing 737, the AG600 is considerably smaller than billionaire Howard Hughes’ flying boat, better known as the Spruce Goose, which had a wingspan of 97m and a length of 67m, but only made one brief flight in 1947.
The AG600’s flight capabilities put all of China’s island-building projects in the South China Sea, where Taiwan also has claims, well within range.
“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,” said James Char, a military analyst at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
The aircraft can fly to the southernmost edge of China’s territorial claims — the James Shoal (Zengmu Shoal, 曾母暗沙) — in just four hours from the southern city of Sanya, state-owned Global Times reported.
The shoal is also claimed by Taiwan and Malaysia, which administers it.
The collection of submerged rocks lies about 80km from Malaysia’s coastline and about 1,800km from the Chinese mainland.
“The plane’s capacity and maneuverability makes it ideal for transporting materiel to those maritime features that are too structurally fragile to support runways,” Char said.
Beijing’s buildup in the South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion in annual trade passes, is hotly contested by other nations.
The Philippines for many years was one of the region’s strongest opponents of Chinese expansionism, and brought a complaint to a UN-backed tribunal.
The panel last year ruled that China’s territorial claims in the sea were without legal basis, but the Philippines has backed away from the dispute under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
China’s military expenditure last year was an estimated US$215 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, putting it in first place in Asia, well ahead of India (US$56 billion), Japan (US$46 billion) and South Korea (US$37 billion).
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