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China to Test the Latest Version of the World's Largest Amphibious Aircraft

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.

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.

The previous version of the aircraft, known as the Kunlong, conducted its 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 epicentre of corona-virus infections.

The other hurdle the aircraft has to overcome is its engines. It is believed that the WJ-6 turboprop engines used on the plane are based on the Soviet-era Ai-20 series which is 1950s technology. 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.

The AG600 has a single body flying boat fuselage, cantilevered high wings, four WJ-6 turboprops and tricycle retractable landing gear. It can operate from 1,500 by 200m stretches of water 2.5 m deep and should be able to conduct Sea State 3 operations with 2m waves. It was developed for aerial fire-fighting, collecting 12 tons of water in 20 seconds and Search and Rescue missions, able to retrieve up to 50 people at sea.

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.



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