Two test pilots and four engineers returned the A350 to the airfield at Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, southwestern France, shortly after 2 p.m., after they had performed the first flight under the gaze of 12,000 spectators that included workers, journalists and senior management.
The plane, which cost about $14 billion to develop, is aimed at competing with Boeing's two best-selling wide-body models, the new 787 Dreamliner, and the 20-year-old 777, for which Boeing is now promising a successor model, the 777X. The first flight came days ahead of the Paris Air Show, the annual showdown between the two manufacturers.
"It was an impressive sight," said Airbus sales chief John Leahy after the plane had taken off at 10 a.m.. "I knew it was going to be impressive but I was blown away. Did you hear how quiet it was? People living around airports won't even know we're taking off."
At stake is the leadership in twin-aisle planes, the workhorses of intercontinental flying that Boeing pioneered and in which it remains dominant. The A350-900, the first variant of three planes in development, will be followed by a stretched version in 2017 to challenge Boeing's 777, as well as a smaller variant, the A350-800 competing with a smaller Dreamliner.
The first flight was witnessed by Airbus Chief Executive Officer Fabrice Bregier and A350 program Director Didier Evrard, as well as Tom Enders, the CEO of Airbus parent European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co. Weather in southern France was lightly clouded, and the A350, painted in Airbus livery on a white fuselage, was escorted by smaller aircraft, with its undercarriage exposed as it disappeared into the sky.
Airbus employees waving blue and white flags gathered by the runway, with local residents standing in fields among the tall grass along the taxiway to get a view of the plane. The A350 will be the last all-new aircraft that Airbus showcases in at least a decade, as both manufacturers will spend the next years tweaking their existing line-up for fuel efficiency.
The aircraft that took off today is one of five test airliners that Airbus will manufacture ahead of serial production next year. Even before today, the A350 had logged 2,800 test hours in a simulator, and about 3,000 hours in the so-called iron bird, a mock-up of the main systems.
"No matter what simulation you do, you need to make it real," said Evrard, the program director.
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