China unveiled the latest updates on the development of its large amphibious aircraft last week, which they claimed to be the largest in the world.

The second prototype of China’s large amphibious aircraft, the AG600M, recently completed its maiden flight test in Zhuhai City, Guangdong Province, CGTN News reported. It performed well during the 22-minute test maneuver flight, with all its systems remaining stable. A follow-up test to evaluate the water gathering and dropping performance of the second AG600M prototype is scheduled to take place soon.

second prototype
Second AG600M prototype (Image source: Twitter)

Expanding Its Combat Aircraft Inventory

The Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) designed Dragon 600 in the late 2000s as a multi-role aircraft, marking Beijing’s effort to independently develop a large aircraft family capable of carrying out firefighting, marine rescue, and other critical emergency rescue missions. It later renamed the amphibious aircraft TA-600 before its current name, the AG600 Kunlong (“Kun Dragon”). Finally, after five years of development, China Aviation Industry General Aircraft (CAIGA) began assembly, which they finished and rolled out in July 2016, subsequently dubbing it the world’s largest amphibious aircraft. Immediately, the manufacturers piqued the interest of its stakeholders and received 17 orders from the Chinese government, including its Coast Guard. After that, however, the AVIC announced that it “does not expect to produce it in large numbers,” Flight Global reported.

The first AG600 prototype took its maiden flight on December 2017 at Zhuhai Jinwan Airport, with its certification received in 2021 and deliveries slated to begin in 2022. A year later, it completed its initial water takeoff and landing, and in July 2020, AG600 completed its first test flight from the ocean from Qingdao, which lasted more than a half-hour.

According to AVI, China is set to produce four working prototypes of the AG600M aircraft, “a full-configuration firefighting model belonging to the AG600 large amphibious aircraft family” dedicated to carrying out flight test missions. Consequently, on May 31, the first AG600M completed its test flight from the ground on May 31 and over the water on August 30.

AG600M
First AG600M prototype landing on water. (Image source: Twitter)

With the second AG600M successful test completed last week, the remaining two prototypes are expected to accomplish their flight test this November and early in 2023, respectively, AVIC said.

AVIC added that it aims to deliver amphibious aircraft to serve firefighting missions by 2023 and enter the market in 2025. A Chinese New site reported in 2015 that its interested customers include New Zealand and Malaysia, but as time and circumstance change, it is yet to be confirmed if these two countries will pursue procurement.

China’s Amphibious Aircraft

The hybrid AG600 aircraft has a land and water takeoff and landing capability, purposely built to accommodate maritime patrols, search and rescue operations, and forest fire missions. It can also be used for resource exploration, oceanographic observation, and inter-island travel, particularly in Chinese-controlled man-made islands like the Spratly and other islands around its territorial-claimed waters in the South China Sea. It measures more than 36 meters long and stands 12 meters high, with its wingspan comparable to a Boeing 737 of near meters.

According to reports, it is powered by four Soviet WJ-6 turboprops with six blades each that can generate up to 560 km/h (300 km) within a range of 2,800 miles—the equivalent distance between Seattle and Miami. The AG600 can take up to 12 hours, allowing it to fly across much of China and respond to emergencies. In aerial firefighting missions, the aircraft can collect 12 tons of water in 20 seconds and transport up to 370 tons of water on a single fuel tank (an estimated 31 rotations). Furthermore, it has a max takeoff weight of about 53,500 kg on land and nearly 50,000 kg on salt water, which can carry up to 50 passengers.

As promising as it looks, the large amphibious aircraft also has its limits; accordingly, it cannot take on sea waves over 2-meter high.

Seaplanes Ain’t A New Thing

Seaplanes—including floatplanes, flying boats, and amphibians—have been around as far back as the early twentieth century, with the United Kingdom and the United States among the pioneers. The difference between the three distinctions is that floatplanes have a conventional aircraft fuselage fitted with external floats like the Aeromarine 700 (1917) bomber while flying boats heavily rely on their main hull for buoyancy like the light sport aircraft Seamax M-22 (2000). The amphibian seaplanes can operate from land and water.

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In 2018, Privateer Industries launched the prototype for its amphibian aircraft project dubbed Privateer, designed by a veteran Boeing engineer. After almost ten years of planning, it finally conducted its maiden flight that same year. As of last month, the seven-seat aircraft is in its final stage of flight testing.

“PRIVATEER™ is the safest water-borne aircraft in existence and also the fastest in its class. The first water landings should occur this week, at Leesburg International Airport (KLEE), in Florida,” said John Meekins, the President of Privateer Industries.

Privateer Industries Privateer
(Screenshot from nicovideo.jp)

Though seaplanes aren’t really a thing now or at least not a priority in the US, considering that tons of sophisticated aircraft emerged in the last 2-3 decades, plus the large warships hosts combat jets at sea and amphibian trucks are already capable enough to execute amphibian attacks if needed. Moreover, helicopter technology is at its peak, capable of performing missions such as reconnaissance, troop deployment, utility transportation, and search and rescue operations, to name a few.