The first Chinese-designed jetliner since the 1970s has taken off for its maiden flight in Shanghai, broadcast live on state television. China hopes to rival Boeing and Airbus with its single-aisle C919 aircraft.
Thousands of guests cheered as the plane left the runway in Pudong International Airport on Friday, with top officials, representatives of the Chinese state-owned aircraft maker Comac, and business partners attending the event.
The narrow-body jet can seat between 155 and 175 passengers in six rows of seats, separated by an aisle. Comac designed the aircraft to serve as a domestic alternative to the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 as the Chinese travel market moves to surpass the US by 2024. An annual growth of 6 percent over the next 20 years will create the first trillion-dollar aviation market, according to forecasts by Boeing.
Reaching for the big two
According to Comac, some 200 Chinese firms and 36 universities participated in the development of the C919 jetliner. The plane, however, still relies on foreign-made systems. These include engines made by CFM International, a joint venture between General Electric and France's Safran Aircraft Engines. The first deliveries of Chinese engines are expected in 2020.
"Our goal, of course, is to become the third player sharing the market with Boeing and Airbus," Yang Chao, the dean of Beihang University's School of Aeronautics and Engineering, told the dpa news agency. "But this requires a long journey."
"The manufacturing of the C919 is the first step, and an important step, in this process," Yang said.
Xi behind the project
The mid-size plane could enter service in two years time if all the tests are successful. The development of the C919, whose name is pronounced similar to the Chinese world for "everlasting," has been endorsed by the country's leadership, including President Xi Jingping.
Xi visited the government-owned Comac in 2013, before taking office, and his words: "Accelerate the construction of the world's top aviation company and continue to make new contributions to develop a strong aviation industry," remain emblazoned on the walls of its production facility.
The jet was scheduled to be tested in 2014, but the production was burdened by delays.
Comac says it have received around 570 orders, almost all of them from domestic companies.
Last year, China started operating the smaller ARJ21 regional jet on domestic routes, which was also developed by Comac.
China's first attempt to design and build an airliner came in the 1970s, as it developed the Shanghai Y-10, a four-engined jet similar to the Boeing 707. Like the C919, it seated just under 200 people. But its antiquated design and difficulty in supplying engines led to the project's abandonment after the prototype first flew in 1980.
Later, warming ties with the US led to an agreement to allow China to assemble McDonnell Douglas MD-82 and MD-90 jetliners under license.
dj/rt/sgb (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)