China’s home-grown C919 passenger plane took off on its maiden test flight Friday, marking a key milestone on the country’s ambitious journey to compete with the world’s leading aircraft makers by raising its profile in the global aviation market.
The narrow-body of the first Chinese-made passenger jet – white with green and blue stripes with “C919” emblazoned on its tail — soared over Pudong international airport in the commercial hub Shanghai as a crowd of thousands cheered.
The flight, carrying its skeleton crew of five pilots and engineers, is the latest sign of China’s growing ambition and technical skill, coming one week after the country launched its first domestically made aircraft carrier and docked a cargo spacecraft with an orbiting space lab.
Before takeoff, CCTV state television said the plane that was built by state-owned aerospace manufacturer Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) would be tested at an altitude of 3,000 meters, some 7,000 meters lower than a regular trip, and at a speed of around 300 kilometers per hour.
The plane took off at 2:00 pm and was expected to fly for an hour and a half as ministers, COMAC staff, company partners and others looked on.
Bao Pengli, deputy director of COMAC’s project management department, said Thursday the manufacturer planned to make two planes a year from now to 2019 to obtain proof of safe flight, before any mass production would be started.
President Xi Jinping has endorsed the new project, visiting COMAC even before he took office in 2013. The first flight was supposed to take place last year, but it was delayed until now.
China is a massive battleground for European consortium Airbus and US aerospace giant Boeing, with the country’s travel market expected to surpass the United States by 2024, according to the International Air Transport Association.
Airbus and Boeing estimate that Chinese airlines will need between 6,000-6,800 aircraft at a total price of around $1 trillion.
The twin-engine C919, whose name sounds like the Chinese word for “everlasting”, has a range of 5,555 kilometers. It can seat 168 passengers in an arrangement similar to other narrow-body jets: three white-velvet upholstered seats line each side of its central aisle.
The C919 will need to pass more tests to obtain Chinese airworthiness certification. The Shanghai-based company is also aiming to have the plane certified by US and European regulators.
Analysts, however, say the C919 will lag technologically behind improved versions of the A320 and 737 which will enter service in the next two years. China Eastern Airlines is the launch customer for the plane, which COMAC says has 570 orders from 23 customers.
The plane also relies on an array of overseas technology, with CFM International, a joint venture between General Electric’s aerospace arm and a unit of French firm Safran supplying the engines.
Others include Honeywell International Inc, United Technologies Corp subsidiary Goodrich, Rockwell Collins Inc and a unit of Parker-Hannifin Corp.