Airbus A350 Executes First Flight as Wide-Body Clash Hots Up

Airbus SAS’s new A350 wide-body returned from its maiden flight after a four-hour airborne test of the long-range airliner, in a show of confidence that the jet can enter service in late 2014 and challenge Boeing Co.

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 11 billion euros ($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, where long-range plane sales are in the spotlight.

“We want more than 50 percent of this market and we will have more than 50 percent of this market,” Airbus Chief Executive Officer Fabrice Bregier said of the estimated 6,000 wide-body plane sales up for grab over the next 20 years.

Seating Plan

At stake is 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 in development, will be followed by the A350-1000 stretch in 2017 to challenge Boeing’s 777, as well as a smaller A350-800 competing with a smaller Dreamliner.

The 787 will span 210 seats to 320 in three variants and the A350 270 to 350. The largest 777X version will be able to carry more than 400 people.

Today’s flight handled as predicated, test pilot Peter Chandler said after a 4 hour 6 minute round-trip.

“It felt more like an aircraft at the end of its flight-test program than one on its first flight,” he said, although some glitches will need to be addressed.

Powered by Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc engines, the A350 reached 25,000 feet and a speed of Mach 0.8 knots as Airbus used the flight to gather data needed to achieve certification within about 14 months, flight test engineer Patrick Du Che said. The flight test campaign is expected to clock around 2,500 hours.

Noise Advantage

A flight more than six years in the making was witnessed by A350 program Director Didier Evrard, as well as Tom Enders, CEO of Airbus parent European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co.

The 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.

“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.”

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 the company showcases in at least a decade, as both manufacturers will spend the next years tweaking their existing line-up for fuel efficiency.

The plane that took off today is one of five test airliners 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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