TOULOUSE - Airbus's next-generation A350 plane took off on its first test flight Friday in a milestone for an airliner the firm hopes will challenge Boeing's 787 Dreamliner in the lucrative long-haul market.
With hundreds of cheering supporters looking on, some of whom arrived early to get a prime spot under a patchy sky, the plane took off from the airport in the French city of Toulouse for a flight due to last four hours.
Much like its Dreamliner competitor, the A350 makes extensive use of light carbon-based composite materials that significantly reduce fuel consumption and costs.
Two helicopters hovered in the sky and a jet accompanied the plane as it took off just three days before the start of the high-profile Paris Air Show, where Airbus is predicting hundreds of orders as it ups its fight against rival Boeing (IW 500/16).
"It's very emotional for everybody because we've been working for years on this project," said Frank Chapman, one of Friday's reserve test pilots who will be flying the plane in its upcoming year-long test flying phase.
He said the flight was proceeding to plan an hour after take-off. "The crew is happy, people on the ground are satisfied too," he said.
The A350 -- more than half of which is made of composites -- was crewed for its maiden flight by a British and a French test pilot assisted by a flight engineer and three other engineers, all wearing orange jumpsuits.
The plane is now set to enter a test-flying period that Chapman says will last just over a year before certification takes place.
If all goes well, first delivery is expected at the end of 2014. Confirmed customers so far include Qatar Airways, British Airways and Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific.
Airbus has positioned the A350 between Boeing's popular 777 and its new 787, which came into service after long delays in September 2011. The European company hopes it will eat away at both planes' markets.
The test flight may cast a shadow over Boeing at the Paris Air Show, where the U.S. firm is hoping to prove its Dreamliner is back on track after recent technical problems forced the worldwide grounding of the fleet.
Christophe Menard, aerospace and defense analyst at Kepler Capital Markets in Paris, said that despite its own delays on the A350, Airbus was getting the plane out faster than Boeing managed with the Dreamliner.
"If the plane flies well Friday, then it clearly means that they are more in command of their development process than Boeing," he said.
Dreamliner is Ahead in Orders
Still, the 787 is ahead of the A350 in terms of orders -- 890 versus 613.
Tom Enders, the head of Airbus's parent company EADS, was bullish on the question of orders at the upcoming Paris Air Show.
"I believe that the air show next week should be good for a few hundred orders for Airbus," he told reporters on Thursday.
A Galvanizing Moment for Airbus
Enders described the test flight as "a galvanizing moment for Airbus and the entire group."
"It is a very special moment in the life of a company," he said, though, "There are still plenty of challenges ahead."
The A350's test flying phase will be monitored closely for any problems.
"The risk is they find other things that they hadn't expected," said Nick Cunningham, an aviation analyst at the London-based Agency Partners.
"They start building aircraft before they finish certifying and testing, so if you run into any issues, it gets very expensive as you have to fix the ones you already built.
"That's the problem that Boeing has been having with the 787, and it's an issue that Airbus themselves had with the A380, so it's a nail-biting time over the next year."
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2013