First Flight: COMAC C919 & Chinese Aerospace reaches major milestone

Earlier this morning (UK time) saw the first flight of the COMAC C919; China’s first domestically produced single aisle jet airliner, and the country’s latest step towards its ultimate goal of competing against the global dominance of companies such as Airbus and Boeing.

The aircraft took off at 14:00 Shanghai time, with the flight lasting around 1 hour 20 mins – with an estimated 2 million people watching the live ‘from the cockpit’ stream on Chinese social media website Weibo.

The UK’s Aerospace industry has also been an interested observer in the development of the aircraft and today’s first flight; with suppliers from across the UK providing and helping to supply parts ranging from the composite horizontal tail plane, the external Taxi Aid Camera systems, and oil heat exchangers for the C919’s CFM LEAP 1-C Engine.

Back in early 2015, we published our China Challenge report – which gave an overview of China’s strategic approach to developing a truly globally competitive, domestic Aerospace industry. Overall, the Aerospace sector is one of the most important industries tasked with boosting innovation, developing new technology and helping to re-balance of its economy away from the high volume/ low value export model which has propelled the country’s growth over the past few decades. The C919’s first flight signifies a major milestone in this strategy – a more than $7bn of investment to design and produce a domestic airliner, with Western complex parts – before China moves onto its next stage, of producing a globally competitive aircraft with highly complex components developed in China.

COMAC’s focus will now be on a rigorous testing and certification phase; meeting the safety processes and procedures of the Chinese Civil Aviation Administration (CAAC) to ensure it is fully safe to fly, before deliveries to airlines and lessors can begin. Whilst this process may take another few years to complete, it will be a vital as well as steep learning curve for Chinese engineers; continuing the experience they have already had whilst developing the C919. In addition, getting this right is crucial; as the aircraft and Chinese industry overall can only be competitive by demonstrating a safe and reliable design process to Chinese airlines, as well as future Western airlines.

Once flying and operating reliably in service (not an easy task in itself), attention will move to the next stage of China’s strategy; designing and developing the C929 widebody aircraft, alongside UAC of Russia. Whilst the current C919 has orders largely from Chinese and Asian carriers, the C929’s aim would be to compete directly on the global market with those widebodies offered by Airbus and Boeing. This development is being watched closely by UK industry, with the Department for International Trade (DIT) highlighting the C929 development as one of the main strategic future markets for the UK.

The first flight of the C919 does not demonstrate the end of Airbus and Boeing’s dominance in the global aerospace market. However, what it does demonstrate is that COMAC’s potential challenge towards Airbus and Boeing’s dominance, got a lot closer. As such, the UK must ensures it is working with and in China to capture market opportunities as they arise, as well as working hard at home to keep UK industry at the very forefront of the global Aerospace sector as challenges emerge.