China’s first large domestically made passenger aircraft has completed its maiden flight, mounting a major challenge to Boeing and Airbus.
After about 90 minutes in the air the plane landed safely back at Pudong airport in Shanghai.
The plane is a key symbol of Beijing’s soaring ambitions to enter the global aviation market. Made by state-owned firm Comac, it has been in planning since 2008 but the flight was repeatedly pushed back.
For last Friday’s maiden flight, the plane carried only its skeleton crew of five pilots and engineers and took off in front of a crowd of thousands of dignitaries, aviation workers and enthusiasts.
Ahead of the flight, state television said the plane would fly at an altitude of only 3,000m (9,800 feet), some 7,000m lower than a regular trip, and reach a speed of around 300km/h (186mph).
The C919 is designed to be a direct competitor to Boeing’s 737 and the Airbus A320.
In an interview carried out in March but released on Chinese television shortly before the launch, test pilot Cai Jun said he had full confidence in the plane.
“A pilot knows clearly the condition of a plane. He knows very well whether it will work. So I’m not afraid at all, but focusing more on whether the plane is in its best shape now,” he said.
He also described halting an earlier taxiing test in late 2016 because of a problem with the brakes.
“It’s just like driving a car. I put the brakes on, and the plane started to shake,” he said.
He said he had had to argue with the plane’s engineers to help refine the design.
“For the designers, the plane is their baby, which they believe is perfect. But our task is to tell them that their baby is not perfect, it has strengths and weaknesses, and they have to make improvements,” the pilot said.
The plane still relies on a wide array of imported technology though, it is for instance powered by engines from French-US supplier CFM International.
Orders have already been placed for more than 500 of the planes, with commitments from 23 customers, say officials, mainly Chinese airlines. The main customer is China Eastern Airlines.
Europe’s aviation safety regulator has started the certification process for the C919 – a crucial step for the aircraft to be successful on the international market.
China has had ambitions to build its own civil aircraft industry since the 1970s, when leader Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, personally backed a project.
But the Y-10, built in the late 1970s, was impractical due to its heavy weight and only three of the aircraft were ever made.
It’s estimated that the global aviation market will be worth $2tn (£1.55tn) over the next 20 years.