China's First Jumbo Jet Disrupts Aerospace Hegemony: The Comac C919 A Symbol Of Nationalism

After many years of research and design, China has finally unveiled its flagship jumbo jet with which the country hopes to compete in the aerospace industry. At 11 p.m. PST on Thursday, May 4, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) sent its C919 passenger jet into the skies for a maiden test flight.

The first ever Chinese-built passenger jet sped down the runway at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, as a delegation of government officials and COMAC staff watched with bated breath. After disappearing from view, the C919 aircraft – valued at roughly $8.6 billion – proceeded to perform a series of manoeuvres while engineers scrutinized and recorded performance data.

The maiden flight is only the beginning for the C919 as it will face a few more years of stringent aerial tests before the aircraft will be certified for commercial flight. Nevertheless, on Thursday after the C919 landed safely, the teast pilots displayed jubilant optimism as they emerged from China's new pride and joy wearing broad smiles and uniforms covered in the Chinese flag.

The white C919 – registration number B-001A – does not yet sport an ailrine livery and is temporarliy covered in anti-corrosion paint, complete with a green and blue striped tail bearing the aircraft's model number, C919.

The COMAC C919 carries a 168-seat, single-aisle configuration and boasts a flying range of 2,200 nautical miles on the standard version, or 2,999 nautical miles on the extended-range version. This range is significatly less than similar-sized aircraft by market leaders Boeing and Airbus. A Boeing 737 will fly a distance of 5,510 nautical miles, whereas the Airbus A320 offers a range of 3,590 nautical miles.

Meanwhile aeronautical experts based on Bainbridge Island, just off the coast of Seattle, the home of America's Boeing factory, were sceptical of the potential market competition. Speaking on behalf of the Leeham aviation consulting firm, Bjorn Fehrm noted that the C919 was four percent heavier than Boeing's 737 MAX-8, which would adversely impact the aircraft's fuel efficiency. Moreover, Fehrm pointed out that China's COMAC was aiming for a production output of 7 C919's per month, whereas Boeing will most likely produce 57 737 MAX-8 models per month.

China New Jetliner production line C919
The COMAC assembly line for the C919, the first large Chinese-made passenger jetliner. [Image by AP Images]

Although Boeing doesn't seem too bothered by China's new rival C919, Leeham analysts couldn't confidently rule out a potential dent in Boeing or Airbus sales in the same class of aircraft. The consulting firm speculates that China, a hardened nationalistic state, may implement measures that could force Asian and African countries under its influence to exclusively purchase the C919.

The New York Times echoed the sentiment in an analysis of China's latest aeronautical success. Even if the C919 produces less overall efficiency, China's growing influence over international states could cause a significant drop in Boeing 737 MAX-8 and Airbus A320 sales.

Chairman of the state-owned COMAC company, Jin Zhuanglong, confirmed that the production of the C919 by China and for China is "the will of the state, the dream of the Chinese nation and the expectations of the Chinese people," and that it was a manifestation of China's "aeronautical patriotism."

According to Derek Levine, author of a book documenting China's journey with the C919, the country "wanted to build a homegrown airliner so it would no longer relinquish its lucrative large commercial airplane market to foreign companies." Levine is also of the belief that the venture has "more to do with nationalism than commercial intent."

President of China Xi Jinping added his voice to the celebration by fuelling the speculation that China is motivated by nationalistic goals.

"We used to believe that it was better to buy than to build, better to rent than to buy. We need to spend more on researching and manufacturing our airliners."
However, COMAC is under immense pressure to assure potential clients and investors that the C919 will be an efficient and reliable carrier. With this goal in mind, COMAC has provided unprecedented transparency in the development of the C919, even going so far as to stream live footage from the cockpit during Thursday's maiden flight.

C919 cockpit boasting sophisticated avionics
The cockpit of a C919 seen at a COMAC assembly line in Shanghai. [Image by AP Images]

In spite of President Jinping's call for exclusively local production, the C919 features many Western aviation technologies. General Electric, Honeywell, and CFM International are just some of the suppliers of sophisticated avionics for the C919

COMAC's deputy director of manufacturing, Bao Pengli, confirmed that the aircraft will not be ready for commercial production until at least September 2017. The company aims to build a minimum of 6 prototype C919's before large-scale commercial production will commence.

The company says it has a total of 23 Chinese buyers so far, with C919 orders amounting to 570 so far. According to CNN Money, China is the world's largest aviation market and will likely overtake the United States in terms of market demand. Boeing has estimated that China will need to spend $1 trillion to meet demand, with at least 5,100 orders likely being in the same class as the C919.

[Featured Image by AP Images]