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maiden flight

The C919, China’s first large domestically made passenger aircraft has completed its maiden flight, mounting a major challenge to Boeing and Airbus.

After about 90 minutes in the air the C919 landed safely back at Pudong airport in Shanghai.

The plane is a key symbol of Beijing’s soaring ambitions to enter the global aviation market.

Made by state-owned company COMAC (Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China), it has been in planning since 2008 but the flight was repeatedly pushed back.

For May 5 maiden flight, the C919 carried only its skeleton crew of five pilots and engineers and took off in front of a crowd of thousands of dignitaries, aviation workers and enthusiasts.

Image source COMAC

Ahead of the flight, state TV said the plane would fly at an altitude of only 3,000m (9,800 feet), some 7,000m lower than a regular trip, and reach a speed of around 300km/h (186mph).

The Chinese plane is designed to be a direct competitor to Boeing’s 737 and the Airbus A320.

In an interview carried out in March but released on Chinese TV shortly before the launch, test pilot Cai Jun said he had full confidence in the plane.

“A pilot knows clearly the condition of a plane. He knows very well whether it will work. So I’m not afraid at all, but focusing more on whether the plane is in its best shape now,” he said.

Cai Jun also described halting an earlier taxiing test in late 2016 because of a problem with the brakes.

“It’s just like driving a car. I put the brakes on, and the plane started to shake,” he said.

The pilot said he had had to argue with the plane’s engineers help refine the design.

“For the designers, the plane is their baby, which they believe is perfect. But our task is to tell them that their baby is not perfect, it has strengths and weaknesses, and they have to make improvements,” Cai Jun said.

The C919 still relies on a wide array of imported technology though, it is for instance powered by engines from French-US supplier CFM International.

Orders have already been placed for more than 500 of the planes, with commitments from 23 customers, say officials, mainly Chinese airlines. The main customer is China Eastern Airlines.

Europe’s aviation safety regulator has started the certification process for the C919 – a crucial step for the aircraft to be successful on the international market.

China has had ambitions to build its own civil aircraft industry since the 1970s, when leader Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, personally backed a project.

However, the Y-10, built in the late 1970s, was impractical due to its heavy weight and only three of the aircraft were ever made.

It is estimated that the global aviation market will be worth $2 trillion over the next 20 years.

AirAsia is set to start flights in India on Thursday.

AirAsia is the first airline with foreign investment to operate in India.

The airline has been set up by one of Asia’s biggest low-cost carriers, AirAsia, and India’s Tata Group.

The carrier’s promise to become the “lowest-cost” airline in India has triggered a fresh price war in the sector.

Most of India’s domestic airlines have been mired in losses owing to high fuel costs and intense price competition.

AirAsia is the first airline with foreign investment to operate in India

AirAsia is the first airline with foreign investment to operate in India

Only one of India’s six main carriers, IndiGo, has been making profits in recent years.

India has seen a surge in demand for air travel in recent years, making it one of the faster-growing aviation markets in the region.

But despite huge potential, airlines have struggled to make money, not least because they have been trying to cut fares in an attempt to attract more customers.

For its maiden flight between Bangalore and Goa, AirAsia India has offered tickets for as low as $17, cheaper than the train fare for a second-class air conditioned cabin.

The move has triggered a price war, with other domestic carriers slashing their fares and also offering heavy discounts.

While that may be good news for travelers, it is not so good for airlines because most of them have been struggling financially.

For its part, AirAsia India said its model had always been about keeping the fares low and its costs “razor-thin”.

AirAsia chief executive Mittu Chandilya said the model had worked in similar markets for the past 12 years.

India opened up its aviation market to foreign investment in 2012 in an attempt to boost growth in the sector and the overall economy.

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European Space Agency’s rocket Vega is finally set to make its maiden flight on Monday.

30m-tall Vega, first conceived in the 1990’s, will launch on what is termed a qualification flight from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana.

Vega will carry nine satellites into orbit but the object of the mission is really to prove the rocket’s systems all work as designed.

The vehicle has been developed to assure European access to space for payload classes weighing less than 2.5 tons.

At the moment, these smaller satellites tend to ride converted Russian ICBMs to get into orbit and they can sometimes wait many months to get a launch slot.

Vega should allow European operators to have more control over the schedules of their space projects. It also means that the value of what it is an immensely high-tech enterprise will return to the European economy, not to foreign industry.

“Vega gives Europe the ability to launch small satellites,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the European Space Agency (ESA).

“New technologies – and in particular the miniaturization of technologies – are making for more and more small satellites. This is particularly true of scientific satellites such as Earth observation spacecraft. So, Vega has a fantastic perspective in front of it provided we succeed,” he said.

ESA’s rocket Vega has been developed to assure European access to space for payload classes weighing less than 2.5 tons

ESA’s rocket Vega has been developed to assure European access to space for payload classes weighing less than 2.5 tons

Vega’s launch in French Guiana is scheduled to take place between 10:00 and 12:00 GMT.

• Vega will lift off from a refurbished pad formerly used by the Ariane 1

• Its four stages and satellite payload are assembled on the launch site

• Satellites will weigh from a few 10s of kg up to a maximum of 2,500kg

• The “reference mission” is a 1.5t satellite in a 700km-high polar orbit

There will inevitably be a degree of nervousness in launch control at Kourou come lift-off time. According to statistics compiled by the Ascend aerospace consultancy, 58% (11 out of 19) of new rockets since 1990 have experienced a major anomaly on their first flight.

It is for this reason that the satellites carried on Vega’s maiden voyage have all been given a “free ride”.

Stefano Bianchi, ESA’s Vega programme manager, explained: “Of course, we understand more about [the way rockets perform today] – we have more modellisation capability, computers, etc, but it is clear that at system level you have things you cannot test on the ground. And you have to rely on the first flight.

“You do all the verification, you take all of the margins on what is unknown, but still the first flight is always a test.”

Vega is a four-stage vehicle. Its first three segments burn a solid fuel. Its fourth and final stage uses liquid propellants and can be stopped and restarted several times to get a spacecraft into just the right orbit. The stage can also bring itself out of the sky – something deemed very important these days given the rising concern over space debris.

A significant innovation is the way the motor cases are prepared for the first three stages employing a high-strength graphite fibre and epoxy resin.

Avio, the Italian aerospace manufacturer at the heart of the Vega project, has set up a facility where filaments of this material can be wound into the desired shape.

“The use of carbon fibre is very important and allows us to reduce cost and improve performance, because there is less weight in that ratio between the frame and the fuel,” said Avio CEO Francesco Caio.

“At the moment, we’re talking about a cost of 22 million to 25 million Euros for the launcher before you add in the launching costs. It is difficult to gauge how things will evolve – and it is likely to be a function of volume and overall organization of industry and the value chain in Europe – but frankly I certainly think there is potential to drive costs down further,” he said.

ESA expects an operational Vega to be launching about twice a year, carrying mostly small scientific and government satellites.

Vega will take its place alongside its “big brother” at Kourou – the Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket, and the new medium-lift “Europeanized” Soyuz rocket that has only recently started launching from the spaceport.

With all three vehicles, Arianespace, the company that runs Kourou, will now be able to offer satellite operators a ride for any type of spacecraft to all kinds of orbit – from the low, pole-crossing orbits used by Earth observation missions, to the high, geostationary locations favored by big telecommunications platforms.

Preparation for the launch has been pushing right up against the end of the available time window.

If Vega should need to delay its flight through this coming week because of technical concerns, it is highly likely it will be asked to stand down for a month or so.

An Ariane 5 rocket has been booked to launch Europe’s third ATV cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS) on 9 March and this mission takes precedence over all other activity at Kourou.

The frequent comings and goings at the station require a carefully co-ordinated traffic schedule and this cannot be disrupted for Vega’s introduction – as important as it is.