China’s Largest Jet Makes Successful First Flight

May 5, 2017

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For several decades, Airbus and Boeing have owned the mid-range, narrow-body jet market. Canada’s Bombardier C Series has put a small dent in the market recently, but an even newer player is emerging from the world’s fastest-growing technological superpower.

At 2:01pm on Friday, from Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, the COMAC C919 took to the skies for its maiden flight, with a crew of five aboard, and spent an hour and 19 minutes in flight.

COMAC stands for Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, Ltd. COMAC’s C919 is roughly the size of the world’s two most popular airliners: the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737-800. It holds 168 passengers, putting its cabin capacity at about the same size as well. China and its ASEAN counterparts account for the fastest-growing region for aviation in the world, and Boeing estimates that China will need over 5,100 C919-sized planes over the next 20 years.

570 orders have been received for the C919, a product that the Chinese government has dreamed of producing for over 50 years. To China, the C919 isn’t about just building and selling airplanes. It represents an agent of change, and signals the maturity of the country’s technological and manufacturing capacity on the world’s stage.

The C919 flight crew receives a hero's welcome following their successful flight.
The C919 flight crew receives a hero’s welcome following their successful flight.

Airbus has a final assembly line in Tianjin, China, for its A320 series planes. And if you know your planes, you’ll notice the C919 has a lot of design similarities to the A320, with a wing design that resembles Airbus’ newer A350.

As with jets built by its competitors, the C919 consists of several parts from other countries. Its engines are made by CFM, and they’re a derivative of the same engines built for the new Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX. The C919 engine is called the LEAP 1-C. The C stands for COMAC. Its auxiliary power unit, flight control systems, wheels, brakes and navigation systems are provided by US-based Honeywell Aerospace. Its cockpit displays are made by Ireland-based Eaton Aerospace. Its cockpit, cabin interior and fixtures are made by FACC, of Austria. Although early C919s will have LEAP engines, China is reportedly developing its own engine for the jet, but those aren’t due for a few more years.

Screenshot from the live broadcast of the C919 first flight.
Screenshot from the live broadcast of the C919 first flight.

The flight was viewed around the world, thanks to live-streaming. And for the first time ever, viewers were given a look inside the flight deck. There was also a camera mounted to the bottom of the plane, which gave a view of the nose gear. These views came as a particular surprise, being that being that COMAC is a state-owned entity of China’s communist government.

The COMAC ARJ 21 -- credit Visual China Group (VCG) / Getty Images
The Chengdu Airlines COMAC ARJ21 — credit Visual China Group (VCG) / Getty Images

The C919 development began in February, 2007, and was preceded by a smaller jet: the COMAC ARJ21. The ARJ21 first flew in 2008, and finally entered service in 2016, with Chengdu Airlines. Chengdu has two ARJ21s in its fleet, while only six have been built. The other four were built as test aircraft, and will likely never fly with airlines.

The C919 has had its own developmental issues. The plane that flew on Friday was first rolled out 18 months ago, in November, 2015. By comparison, Airbus and Boeing usually fly their prototypes within 4-6 weeks of their rollout. By the time the C919 enters service, it will be over two years delayed. China Eastern is expected to be the first airline to operate it.

To actually fly on a Chinese-built jet, you’ll likely have to go to China. Most of its 570 orders are from airlines based in China, along with 7 for a German startup called PuRen, and 10 for Thailand’s City Airways.

All photos except for the screenshot are sourced from Getty Images

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