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C-919: China’s first homemade jetliner makes maiden flight

China’s first homegrown passenger jet has taken to the skies for a politically charged maiden flight that authorities claimed would propel the country into a new era of aviation.

The C919, a twin-engine airliner designed to compete with the Airbus 320 and Boeing 737, took off from Shanghai’s Pudong international airport at about 2pm on Friday.

The highly symbolic lift-off, which the government has celebrated as further evidence of China’s own rise, was broadcast live on state-controlled television.

The jet is the work of the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac), a state-run company that was founded in 2008 with the specific mission of producing the country’s first commercially viable passenger jet – something Chairman Mao tried but failed to achieve during the 1970s.

Several of the plane’s key components are imported – the C919 features German landing gear, Franco-American engines and an Austrian interior – and one aviation analyst told Bloomberg the manufacturer’s claims to have produced a genuinely made-in-China jet were “questionable”.

Nevertheless, the C919’s debut was greeted with an outpouring of patriotism and pride.

In an allusion to President Xi Jinping’s key political slogan, state media celebrated the flight as “another fulfillment of a Chinese dream”.

A presenter on CGTN, China’s state-controlled broadcaster, read messages of support for the country’s first large passenger jet. “These days China can make anything,” celebrated one viewer. “It’s awesome!”

Gu Bin, an aviation expert from China’s Aviation Industry Cooperation, a state-run aerospace firm, predicted the Chinese aircraft would “rip a hole” in the duopoly enjoyed by Airbus and Boeing.

“For many years our country has been trying to do this, and we failed. Now, [the C919] can be compared to mainstream large passenger jets such as the Boeing 737 and the Airbus 320 in terms of its capacity and its technology and, to some extent, is even better than the latter,” he said.

“I see a bright future for the C919 and its manufacturer,” Gu added.

In his book about China’s aviation revolution, The Dragon Takes Flight, Derek Levine described the C919 as part of an intensely political government attempt to show China’s citizens that their country possessed and could produce the world’s most advanced technology.

The Communist party believed the “development of a large passenger aircraft would help wither emotional scars that linger in the mind of the Chinese people following the Century of Humiliation it suffered at the hands of the west”, Levine argued. He said the C919 had been created to help China “reclaim its status as a great power by developing indigenous innovation”.

The decision to build China’s first homegrown plane is also a commercial one, with Beijing hoping to reclaim a slice of its highly lucrative domestic aviation market from foreign companies.

Last year Boeing predicted that Chinese airlines would splash out more than $1tn on new planes over the next two decades, snapping up more than 6,800 aircraft, the majority single-aisle planes. By 2024 China is expected to overtake the United States as the world’s largest aviation market.

Ahead of Friday’s debut flight, Comac company said it had already received orders for 570 C919s from 23 different customers. Xinhua, China’s official news agency, said that while the plane would initially struggle to compete with “very mature aircraft manufacturers” such as Airbus and Boeing it “should do well in the Chinese market”.

Levine said China would seek to boost the homegrown jet’s chances of taking off by forcing its state-owned airlines to purchase the C919.

“This might be harmful to current commercial aircraft producers, Airbus and Boeing,” he warned.

Additional reporting by Wang Zhen