Flight International Comment from 24 September 2013
There is nothing routine about witnessing the first flight of a new or even a derivative aircraft, especially in the consolidated and shareholder-driven commercial aviation industry of modern times.
While it’s true that computer modelling and simulation has eliminated nearly all of the human risk associated with the moment, it remains no less significant a milestone. It is the defining instant that captures the fruition of a gamble involving billions of dollars of upfront investment. It is, therefore, never taken for granted.
For one glorious week, however, the rare indeed became the routine. It started on Monday 16 September with the first flight of the clean-sheet and under-appreciated Bombardier CSeries in Montreal. Then, the following day in Seattle, came the maiden sortie of the Boeing 787-9. And both took flight only three months after the Airbus A350-900 became airborne for the first time.
The coincident timing, of course, was not something Bombardier or Boeing intended. The former was supposed to fly the first CS100 test vehicle late last year, but the largely ceremonial sortie was pushed back more than eight months to be staged only a day before the on-time take-off of the 787-9, to the delight of a certain section of aviation enthusiasts.
Accidental or not, the coincidence heralds a trend. First flights in commercial aviation may not happen on consecutive days again, but for at least a decade they will occur at regular intervals.
Indeed, there are 22 first-flight events scheduled from 2013 to 2022. The list includes five clean-sheet aircraft and 17 major derivatives. Comparatively, there were only 14 such events in the previous 10 years.
The new wave of commercial aircraft products should be no surprise. First, new entrants from China and Japan mean there are more options in the market. Demand for commercial aircraft has also never been higher. Aircraft manufacturers have discovered that promising a 15-20% improvement in fuel ecomony is like catnip to airlines and lessors.
All this investment will yield a renaissance in commercial aircraft technology. Although the aircraft tube-and-wing layout remains, manufacturers are advancing under the skin with new materials, flight controls and propulsion architectures. As long as the price of fuel represents 40% or more of an airline’s operating costs, the trend looks unstoppable. So prepare for may more first flights ahead.