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China’s answer to Airbus, Boeing completes Shanghai maiden flight

The C919 aircraft, which can carry 150 passengers to rival Airbus 320 and Boeing 737, landed after a 100-kilometre test flight, heralding a new age for Chinese aviation.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 May, 2017, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 May, 2017, 11:39pm

China’s home-grown narrow-bodied aircraft passenger jet, the C919, made its maiden flight from Shanghai Pudong International Airport on Friday, representing arguably the country’s boldest attempt yet to break the global aviation stranglehold that Airbus and Boeing have in international aviation.

Albeit three-years late, the take-off, at exactly 2pm, followed a five-minute ceremony on the tarmac that saw five crew members, led by 41-year-old captain Cai Jun, board the gleaming new aircraft.

It flew to Nantong, about 100 kilometres from Shanghai, before making a U-turn to land back at Pudong airport at about 3:20pm. It has a range of 2,200 to 3,000 nautical miles (5,556 km).

The jet is the first of six C919s which will now undergo rigorous flight testing until 2019 before deliveries are made to airlines, according to Bao Peng, a project manager at the jet’s assembly plant operated by Shanghai-based Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac).

The C919 – whose key parts include engines and avionics systems provided by 15 international companies such as General Electric and Honeywell – has received 570 orders from 23 foreign and domestic customers, including Air China and leasing company GE Capital Aviation Service.

China is projected to require 6,865 new aircraft over the next 20 years valued at 6 trillion yuan (US$869 billion), as airlines replenish their retiring fleets or expand, according to Comac’s projection.

About 21 per cent of these will be twin-aisle planes, while single-aisle aircraft make up 65 per cent of the demand, Comac said.

“The first flight of the C919 aircraft marks a great milestone not only for Comac, but for China and the entire global aerospace industry,” said Steven Lien, president of Honeywell Aerospace’ Asia-Pacific operations. “It expands the ‘China dream’ of flying high with home-grown aircraft.”

The second C919 currently being built at Comac’s Pudong plant may be ready for testing in the second half.

The C919 can carry 150 passengers in a standard configuration, putting it in the same class as the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320.

It took Comac seven years to get its first aircraft, the 78-seat regional jet ARJ-21, with a range of 1,200 to 2,000 nautical miles, into production after its 2008 debut flight.

Analysts said the effort to break the duopoly enjoyed by Boeing and Airbus reflect China’s higher ambitions of wielding its economic might worldwide.

Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying offered his congratulations on the successful flight, saying that it was a moment when a dream comes true.

Over two decades, orders for Boeing and Airbus jets were often used by China to reconcile with the US and Europe when trade tensions.

The C919 is also viewed as a pet project of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who told engineers during a 2014 visit to Comac that a completed jumbo jet made by China was part of his Chinese dream.

A home-made large aircraft, despite costing a large sum of money, would change history, he said.

The next step in Comac’s evolution as an aircraft manufacturer is now likely to be the development of China’s first long-haul, wide-bodied jet, which can carry at least 250 passengers.

Comac and its Russian counterpart United Aircraft Corp set up a 50-50 joint venture last year to develop the plane, scheduled for a test flight in 2022, with deliveries by 2025.

Airbus, which currently assembles the A320 family of aircraft in Tianjin, is confident about China’s demand for larger, long-haul aircraft. Boeing is also getting in on the act. The US plane-maker is finalising plans for a facility in Zhoushan, near Shanghai, for finishing work and delivery of its best-selling B-737 narrow-bodied jets to Chinese airlines.

“The first flight is just a step forward for the C919,” said Emil Zhang, a senior manager with Air France-KLM China.

“It would fly higher in the global aviation industry if it were to pass through safety certification procedures by European and US authorities.”

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