Canadian Manufacturing

China’s first large homegrown jet makes maiden flight, challenging Boeing, Airbus

The program has been beset with manufacturing problems, but could threaten the U.S. and European plane makers' long-standing duopoly


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SHANGHAI—The first large Chinese-made passenger jetliner took off May 5 on its maiden flight, a symbolic milestone in China’s long-term goal to break into the Western-dominated aircraft market.

The takeoff of the C919 elicited cheers and applause from hundreds of invited guests on the ground at Shanghai Pudong International Airport and was broadcast live on Chinese state television. The jet soon became invisible against the dark skies on a windy and polluted day in Shanghai, which was also in the path of dense sandstorms from the north.

With the takeoff, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said the country had become “one of the world’s top makers of jumbo aircraft,” becoming the fourth jumbo jet producer after the U.S., Europe and Russia.

China is touting the C919 as a rival to single-aisle jets the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737. It was originally due to fly in 2014 before being delivered to buyers in 2016, but has been beset by delays blamed on manufacturing problems. It’s now unlikely to carry commercial passengers until at least 2019.

If the one-and-a-half-hour test flight is successful, the aircraft’s maker, state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China Ltd., or Comac, will then seek certification from China’s civil aviation authority and foreign regulators before making any deliveries.

Bao Pengli, deputy director of Comac’s project management department, said Thursday the manufacturer planned to make two planes a year from now to 2019 to obtain proof of safe flight, before any mass production would be started.

Comac says it has 570 orders, mostly from state-owned Chinese airlines. A total of 23 domestic and foreign customers have placed orders. The handful of foreign customers includes GE Capital Aviation Services and Thailand’s City Airways.

The plane can come with 155-175 seats and has a standard flight length of 4,075 kilometres (2,530 miles).

The jet’s development is a key step on the path laid out by Chinese leaders to transform the country from the world’s low-cost factory into a creator of profitable technology.

Comac says more than 200 Chinese companies and 36 universities have been involved in the research and development of the aircraft.

But it also relies on foreign-made technology for critical systems, including its engines, which are made by CFM International, a joint venture between General Electric’s aviation subsidiary and France’s Safran Aircraft Engines. The first deliveries of Chinese-developed engines are expected in 2020, according to the company tasked with making them, AVIC Commercial Aircraft Engine Co. Ltd.

China’s first domestically made jet, the twin-engine regional ARJ-21, flew its passengers in June 2016, eight years after its first test flight. That smaller jet is a rival to aircraft made by Bombardier Inc. of Canada and Brazil’s Embraer SA.


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