SHANGHAI • China's home- grown C919 passenger jet completed its long-delayed maiden flight yesterday, a major first step for Beijing as it looks to raise its profile in the global aviation market and boost high-tech manufacturing at home.
Under overcast skies, the white, green and blue aircraft, with "C919" emblazoned on its tail, touched down at Shanghai's international airport after an 80-minute flight to cheers from thousands of dignitaries, aviation workers and enthusiasts.
The jet is a symbol of China's ambitions to muscle into a global jet market estimated to be worth US$2 trillion (S$2.8 trillion) over the next two decades, as well as of Beijing's broader "Made in China 2025" plan to spur home-made products.
"Seeing the C919 take off into the sky made me quite emotional. This is a moment we have waited to see for a very long time," 42-year-old Wang Mingfeng told Reuters.
At the moment, though, Boeing and Airbus remain far ahead in terms of sales, technical know- how and order books. And the C919, whose test flight was pushed back at least twice since 2014 due to production issues, may need years of tests to get certified in China, as well as in the United States and Europe.
Yesterday, it flew north over the Yangtze River delta, carried out manoeuvres and then returned south along the coast before landing, according to aircraft tracker Flightradar24.
State media said the plane flew at around 3,000m above ground and at speeds of 290 to 300kmh.
The crew of five pilots and engineers, all wearing orange jumpsuits and aviators, were applauded as they disembarked. The plane, which can carry 158 to 168 passengers, had no passenger seats installed for the maiden flight.
A letter from China's ministerial Cabinet, read out after the plane landed, said the successful flight marked a "major breakthrough" and milestone for China's passenger jet industry. The Industry Ministry said in a statement that the flight went smoothly and that all of the plane's systems functioned properly.
The C919, made by state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac), relies on overseas technology from firms, including General Electric, France's Safran, Honeywell International Inc and United Technologies Corp subsidiary Goodrich.
China Eastern Airlines is the launch customer for the plane, which Comac says has 570 orders from 23 customers.
Conceived in 2008, China wants the C919 to eventually take market share from Boeing and Airbus in the lucrative narrow-body market which accounts for more than 50 per cent of the aircraft in service globally.
However, the jet likely faces a lengthy journey from first flight to commercial usage.
"Aviation is a complex market and you need experience over a long time. Boeing has 100 years, Airbus has over 40 years," said Sinolink Securities analyst Si Jingzhe.
China is pushing for recognition globally of its certification by European and US regulators as without their certification, it would be able to sell the jet to only a handful of countries.
Beijing is already looking beyond the C919, with plans to develop a wide-body long-haul jet with Russia. Last November, Comac and its partner United Aircraft Corp said they have started the hunt to find suppliers.