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Airbus A350 next-generation plane takes to the skies on first flight

14th June 2013, Comments0 comments

Airbus's next-generation A350 plane took off on its first test flight Friday, a milestone for the firm after years of work on an airliner it hopes will take on Boeing in the lucrative long-haul market.

With hundreds of cheering supporters looking on, some of whom arrived hours earlier to get a prime spot under a patchy sky, the plane took off at 0800 GMT from an airport near the French city of Toulouse for a flight due to last four hours.

Much like its competitor -- Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner that has been in service since September 2011 -- the A350 makes extensive use of light composite materials that significantly reduce fuel consumption and costs.

Helicopters hovered in the sky and a jet accompanied the plane as it took off 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.

"I'm known to be sometimes a bit cold-blooded. I can tell you today it was really emotional," said Fabrice Bregier, head of Airbus.

"This is our baby and I'm very pleased to see such a nice baby. Thank you to all of you, I love you," he said, before jokingly telling the reporter he was talking to: "Not you!"

A British and a French test pilot were at the helm of the A350 on its maiden flight, assisted by a flight engineer in the cockpit and three other engineers at the back, all wearing orange jumpsuits.

"The aircraft is performing extremely well," said Peter Chandler, one of the test pilots, two hours into the flight as he flew over the nearby Pyrenees mountains, staying close to home in the region of Toulouse.

"We hope to reach 25,000 feet (7,500 metres) very quickly," he said via video link.

On the ground, Frank Chapman, one of Friday's reserve test pilots, said a year-long test flying period would now kick off.

More than 10,000 hours of ground tests have already been done on the airliner before the flight, and over the next year, a total of five test planes will criss-cross the globe in the warmest and coldest regions, at low and high speed.

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.

Standing on a hill overlooking the Toulouse airport, hundreds of plane enthusiasts had gathered from early in the morning to witness the lift-off.

"I was at high school when the A350 programme was launched so today is the culmination of much research and many discussions online about this plane," said Thierry Kapfer, 27.

Boeing still dominates the long-haul market, and Airbus has positioned its A350 between the US firm's popular 777 and its new 787, hoping to eat away at both planes' markets.

The test flight may cast a shadow over Boeing at the Paris Air Show, where the US 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 defence 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.

Still, the 787 is ahead of the A350 in terms of orders -- 890 versus 613.

Airbus says that the A350 will consume 6 percent less fuel than the 787 and 25 percent less than the 777, and the year-long test flying phase will help verify that claim, as well as diagnose 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.

Tom Enders, the head of Airbus's parent company EADS, described the test flight as "a galvanising moment for Airbus and the entire group".

"It is a very special moment in the life of a company," he told reporters on Thursday, though he added: "There are still plenty of challenges ahead."

© 2013 AFP

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