SHANGHAI • China's first big passenger plane has rolled off the assembly line as the Asian giant seeks to develop its own aviation sector and challenge foreign industry giants for prestige and market share.
A crowd of several thousand gathered yesterday as the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) rolled out the single-aisle C-919 airliner at the company's manufacturing and assembly centre in Pudong, near Shanghai's main airport.
The plane emerged from layers of red curtains with gold trimming to great applause and patriotic songs blaring from the sound system.
A small truck towed the 39m-long plane - painted white with a green tail - out of a cavernous building decorated with an enormous Chinese flag into the sunlight as project workers marched alongside.
State television also showed footage of the aircraft rolling off the assembly line.
The C-919, a narrow-body jet which can seat 168 passengers, has been under production at a facility in Shanghai for over a year, as workers assembled components under the guidance of Comac.
For China, the plane represents years of efforts in a state-mandated drive to reduce dependence on European consortium Airbus and Boeing of the United States, and even compete against them.
The C-919 targets the lucrative segment dominated by Boeing's 737 and the Airbus A-320.
"The roll-out of the first C-919 aircraft marks a significant milestone in the development of China's first indigenous aircraft," Comac chairman Jin Zhuanglong told the audience of government and industry officials.
But the aircraft, which has a range of up to 5,555km, will not make its first test flight this year as originally scheduled, Mr Jin said, with its maiden voyage planned for next year. The China Daily newspaper has reported it could even be put back to 2017.
The C-919's test flights will run for about three years before it is put into commercial use.
Comac said it has won 517 orders for the aircraft from 21 customers at home and abroad, according to a statement.
Among the foreign customers, Thailand's City Airways has ordered 10, according to an announcement last month.
Spending on the C-919 has not been revealed.
Last month, the Export-Import Bank of China said it would provide Comac with US$7.9 billion (S$11 billion) in financing for its aircraft projects.
The Chinese company also plans a wide-body plane, the C-929, in cooperation with Russia's United Aircraft Corp.
Speculation is mounting that China will create a new aero-engine entity to try to produce the powerful engines needed for large civil aircraft.
China is expected to add 6,330 new aircraft worth US$950 billion to its commercial fleet by 2034, Boeing estimates.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG XINHUA, REUTERS