China's home-grown C919 passenger jet at Pudong International Airport before its maiden flight. Photo: Reuters, Aly Song
China's home-grown C919 passenger jet at Pudong International Airport before its maiden flight. Photo: Reuters, Aly Song

The first-ever Chinese-made commercial twinjet passenger airliner, the C919, grabbed much limelight when it rolled off the assembly line in Shanghai in 2015. The plane was seen as the embodiment of Beijing’s lofty goal of flying the ballooning number of passengers on indigenous jets, rather than on Airbus A320s or Boeing 737s when more of their people were taking to the skies.

But the C919 prototype, manufactured by the state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (Comac) with a maximum seating capacity of 190, only got airborne for the first time in May this year, flying out of Shanghai Pudong Airport after a two-year delay.

Comac was once accused of forced technology transfer by foreign partners in the development of its C919 passenger planes. Photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip

Still, party mouthpieces rushed to create a tremendous buzz, hailing the C919 – categorized as a narrow-body, single-aisle airliner by industrial standard – as China’s first homemade “big passenger plane for arterial routes”.

One thing to note, however, is that its turbofan engines are made by CFM International, a joint venture between General Electric and French aerospace heavyweight Safran.

Xinhua also admitted that the C919’s journey to commercialization is running late, as it still has years to go before it can fly its maiden commercial flight.

Visitors sit in the control cabin of a scale model of a C919 passenger jet on display at the 8th Zhuhai Airshow. File photo: Reuters/Stringer.

Last Friday, the plane flew from Shanghai to the northwestern city of Xian for its first inter-city flight. It was also the first time it had flown over 1,000 kilometers (although it is designed for a full-load range of up to 5,555km).

The 1,300km trip took more than two hours and the plane ascended to 7,800 meters at a cruising speed of Mach 0.74, or 900km per hour. It was prohibited from flying at a higher altitude because the aircraft was yet to be certified.

The plane was escorted by a China Eastern Airlines’ Embraer ERJ145 jet, which was deployed to monitor and guide the C919 and relay weather information in case of any emergency, Beijing Youth Daily revealed.

The C919 passenger jet is seen at a hangar ahead of its maiden flight. Photo: Reuters/Stringer.

The plane will undergo further tests at Comac’s Xian plant. It has to do no less than 5,000 hours of flying time to qualify for its certificate of airworthiness and the process may take years to finish. It may also fly overseas to test its reliability under extreme weather conditions.

The C919 is also facing some bumps in marketing. While Chinese carriers as well as aircraft leasing firms, including Hainan Airlines and China Construction Bank Financial Leasing, have shored up sales with almost 100 firm orders, the only overseas buyer so far is GE Capital Aviation Services, a key partner of the program, with 10 commitments.

Bangkok-based City Airways canceled its 2015 MoU for ten C919s due to its suspension of operation, following the insolvency of Germany’s PuRen Airlines, which pre-ordered seven planes in the same year.

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