- A new model of China’s AG600 amphibious aircraft made its maiden flight on May 31.
- The AG600 is being developed for disaster response, but its amphibious capability has military implications.
- The US military is also pursuing aircraft with amphibious capability, reflecting its increased focus on the Pacific.
An upgraded model of China’s massive AG600 amphibious plane made its maiden flight on May 31, taking off and landing at an airport in southern China’s Guangdong province.
The latest model of the AG600 brings a new configuration and higher maximum take-off weight to the largest amphibious aircraft in the world.
Once fully operational, the AG600 would extend China’s reach in the Pacific maritime theater. The US military, which is increasingly focused on operations in the Pacific, is also considering developing aircraft with amphibious capability for similar uses.
Aviation Industry Corporation of China, the developer of the AG600, said the plane completed several tests during its maiden 20-minute flight – including a constant speed climb, speed reduction at level altitude and simulating a go-around after a balked landing – and was in good condition with stable systems throughout, according to the Chinese state Xinhua News Agency.
AVIC said the new model is specialized for firefighting, with a maximum takeoff weight of 60 metric tons and a capacity of 12 metric tons of water, in addition to a longer range. The firm said the AG600 would be able to serve in firefighting missions in 2023.
AVIC also installed a pressurized cabin, fly-by-wire controls, integrated avionics and other firefighting-related systems, according to CGTN of Chinaanother state-run outlet.
According Global Flightwhich noted other design changes including a more rounded upper fuselage and more space under the aircraft’s nose.
While AVIC and Chinese media have highlighted the AG600’s emergency response role, its size and amphibious capability have drawn attention to its potential military uses, such as combat search and rescue. and transporting troops and supplies to distant bases.
The AG600 is part of the “large aircraft family“which China is developing, which includes the Y-20, a long-range cargo plane that the Chinese military has used in recent months to deliver humanitarian aid to Tonga and weapons to Serbia – two flights of several thousands of kilometers.
The AG600 has “niche but important capabilities” and can “reach otherwise hard-to-reach areas,” Timothy Heath, senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, told Insider in a 2021 interview.
“They can also pick up vessels stuck at sea or just need to connect to a vessel at sea where there is no trail,” Heath said at the time.
American amphibious efforts
The US military retired its last seaplane before the end of the Cold War, but its increasing focus on the Pacific and potential conflict with China has sparked renewed interest in amphibious aircraft.
The Japanese military has long operated the high-performance US-2 amphibious aircraft primarily for search and rescue, and US Air Force officials tour one in February during Exercise Cope North 22, during which one US-2 participated in humanitarian aid, disaster relief and air combat exercises near the island of Tinian.
The US Air Force Special Operations Command has already launched a rapid prototyping effort to develop “a detachable amphibious float modification” for its MC-130J workhorse.
The effort will allow the Air Force to “increase placement and access” and provide “enhanced logistics capabilities” at sea and near shore, the command said when announcing the move. effort last year.
This spring, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Posted notice for its “Liberty Lifter” program, which aims to “design, build, and flight test an affordable, innovative, and disruptive seaplane” that can sustain ground-effect flight at altitudes less than 100 feet above sea level. water and fly at altitudes up to 10,000 feet above sea level.
DARPA said he wants an aircraft that meets Department of Defense heavy-lift requirements of over 100 tons and “that operates with runway and port independence”.
Ground-effect craft, like the Soviets’ ekranoplan, skim the surface of the water, allowing them to reach high speeds.
While the ekranoplan’s height cap limited the type of seas it could operate in, DARPA wants the Liberty Lifter to be able to fly over waves as high as 18 feet, allowing it to operate in 85% to 90% of conditions. Maritimes, the program manager told Aviation Week.