The largest passenger aircraft in Boeing's 95-year history, the 747-8 Intercontinental, has lifted off on its maiden sortie.
The aircraft - designated RC001 - departed from runway 34L at 9:59PST local time from Boeing's Everett, Washington, facility at Paine Field.
Painted in a bespoke red, orange, gray and white scheme, and powered by four General Electric GEnx-2B engines, the aircraft took to the sky under the control of 747 chief project pilot Capt. Mark Feuerstein and Capt. Paul Stemer.
The event kicks off a 600hr-long programme of test flights for the new 747, slated to seat 467 in three-classes.
RC001 is expected to land at Boeing Field in Seattle after a three- to five-hour test flight over Washington state. The aircraft is fully instrumented and designed for flutter clearance, flight controls, ride quality, and stability and control evaluations.
A second dedicated test aircraft, RC021, which will be painted in airline launch customer Lufthansa's colours, will be tasked with testing aircraft's interior, including the galleys, lavatories, smoke penetration and the environmental control system.
The first flight caps a trio of maiden sorties for Boeing's commercial operation, making it the third since December 2009's 787 and February 2010's 747-8F's first flight. Boeing plans to deliver all three models before the year is out, the first time it has attempted three model certification campaigns simultaneously.
In contrast to the period leading up to the 747-8F's first flight when the cargo market had plummeted in the wake of the global economic crisis, the near-term economic outlook places the commercial aerospace industry at the beginning of its up-cycle. The US airframer has already taken orders for seven additional 747-8 aircraft, including two freighters from Korean Air Cargo and five passenger models from Air China.
Though industry leaders worry the larger 747's biggest competition comes from its own backyard.
"In a way, the 777-300ER, they compete a little bit with each other," says Steven Udvar-Hazy, CEO of Air Lease Corporation. "There's quite a bit of overlap and there's many airlines both in the Asia segment and Europe that have shifted their 747 flying to 777-300ERs and they can work with frequency, off-season, it's a little better match capacity-wise."
Boeing has moved to marketing the 747-8I as an aircraft in a low-risk niche beneath the 525-seat A380 and 365-seat 777-300ER or A340-600, a marketing tactic validated by both Lufthansa and Korean Air, each having purchased both the A380 and the 747-8I to span their large aircraft fleets.
Boeing's 747-8I features a super-critical wing design, expanded use of advanced composites, new engines, an updated flight deck, and lateral fly-by-wire controls of its outboard ailerons and spoilers as well as 12% more passengers over its processor, the 747-400ER. It has a 442,000kg (975,000lb) maximum take-off weight and a range of 14,800km (8,000nm).
At 76.3m (250ft), the -8I is the longest ever built in commercial aviation history, though will only be certified up to 605 passengers in a single-class configuration.
While the iconic design of the 747 features only a partial upper deck, the Airbus A380's complete upper deck allows it to seat up to 853 passengers, despite having an overall length 3.6m (11ft 10in) shorter than the -8I.
The 747-8 programme is running roughly two years behind the original schedule after the programme suffered significant resource starvation, multiple leadership changes, supply chain issues, and design changes stemming from the freighter's flight tests.
Luxembourg-based Cargolux, is expected to take delivery of the 747-8 freighter due mid-year, pushed back from October 2009.
The first 747-8I is expected to be delivered to a completion centre for finishing as a business aircraft for the Kuwaiti Government before the end of 2011.
Boeing holds orders for 108 747-8s including 76 freighters and 33 Intercontinental passenger aircraft, a type due to enter service in late 2011. Pending the approval of the Chinese government, Boeing will add the additional 5 747-8Is from Air China to its backlog.