When the Comac C919 took off into overcast Shanghai skies on 5 May, guests at the ceremony burst into cheers and applause. Its employees and suppliers hugged and congratulated one another, having just witnessed China’s aerospace ambitions take flight.

“It’s such an emotional day for us,” said a Comac executive. “It took the effort of so many people to get this one aircraft flying. This really represents our dream.”

China has declared its intention to become a major force in aerospace manufacturing, and nine-year-old Comac bears the weight of the country’s resolve on its young shoulders. The C919 is a spearhead for this industrial assault, with the stated aim, no less, of breaking Airbus and Boeing’s stranglehold on the bitterly competitive narrowbody market.

However, while an uneventful first flight is a significant achievement in itself, more hard work and considerable challenges lie in Comac’s path.

The biggest of these will be to navigate through the maze of aircraft certification pitfalls. While other rookies such as Mitsubishi Aircraft have leveraged foreign expertise to smooth the MRJ’s (admittedly bumpy) journey to validation, Comac is determined to get it done on its own, albeit with supplier assistance.

Crucially, it must avoid the mistakes – and heaven knows there is a lengthy list – it made with the ARJ21 regional jet, which even today has not received Chinese production approval and is now facing a raft of modifications. Western certification, meanwhile, remains a distant dream.

Comac’s young, fresh-out-of-school engineering team has boundless enthusiasm, but it lacks experience in commercial aircraft.

Despite a large home market where airlines have been nudged to do the patriotic thing and support the programme, Comac knows that only international sales will allow it, and the C919, to be taken seriously.

The airframer has yet to state when the 158-seater will enter commercial service. When pressed, C919 vice-chief designer Fu Guo Hua would only give an estimate of three years but stressed repeatedly that bumps along the way could lengthen the process.

Given its huge home market and government backing, Comac will inevitably sell a lot of aircraft – one day. The C919 will probably not be best in its class, but it will definitely keep Airbus and Boeing on their toes in China. The dream the C919 represents has not been fully realised, but is gradually taking shape.

Source: Cirium Dashboard