* Carbon-fibre jet "behaving well," chief pilot says
* Joins Boeing 787 in new generation of lightweight jets
* Competition expected to dominate Paris Airshow
By Tim Hepher and Jean Décotte
TOULOUSE, France, June 14 Europe's newest
jetliner, the Airbus A350, successfully completed its maiden
flight on Friday, stepping up the battle with arch-rival Boeing
for sales of a new generation of sleek, lightweight passenger
Watched by more than 10,000 staff and spectators, the
aircraft's curled wingtips sliced into clouds above the Airbus
factory in southwestern France and flew over the Pyrenees
mountains, with a crew of six wearing orange jumpsuits and
The flight, with two former fighter pilots at the controls,
lasted about four hours and capped eight years of development
estimated to have cost $15 billion.
"The airplane is behaving extremely well," said British
chief test pilot Peter Chandler, speaking by radio link from an
altitude of 13,000 feet.
French co-pilot Guy Magrin took the controls for the
take-off at 10:01 local time (0801 GMT), giving the plane air
under its wings for the first time in front of a podium of
airline chiefs who have ordered 613 aircraft.
It touched down at 14:05 local time, after flying past the
Toulouse production site.
"It is a great day for Airbus. A maiden flight doesn't
happen that often. It is not like the auto industry, where you
launch a new model every two years or even less," said Tom
Enders, the head of Airbus parent EADS.
The long-awaited sortie is a milestone for Airbus as it
battles against Boeing's 787 Dreamliner for sales of a
new generation of lightweight jets made from carbon-plastic
material designed to save fuel and open up new long-distance
Boeing was quickest off the mark with the revolutionary
carbon-composite technology and its Dreamliner has outsold the
A350 with sales standing at 833 aircraft for 57 customers.
Airbus hopes to catch up and also mount a challenge to the
U.S. manufacturer's larger, metallic 777 using a later version
of the A350.
SETTING NEW STANDARDS
Airbus's ebullient New York-born sales chief, John Leahy,
lost no time in talking up the plane's benefits moments after
its Rolls-Royce engines opened up to full power.
"Did you hear how quiet it was? We are going to set new
standards ... People round airports won't even know we are
taking off," Leahy said.
Didier Evrard, a top European missile developer who was
selected to run the A350 programme because of its complexity,
smiled broadly but refused to relax.
"I will still be nervous until it comes back. I'm an
engineer so I have to be connected to the ground and make sure
everything is fine," he said during the flight.
Competition for wide-bodied jets is expected to dominate
next week's Paris Airshow, where the A350 could steal attention
with a brief roar over the aviation industry's largest showcase.
Airbus is finalising orders from Singapore Airlines
, Kuwait Airways and Air France and
may add a new customer at the June 17-23 show, analysts say.
Evrard said that Airbus would soon add a customer in the
United States, where industry sources say that United Airlines
is negotiating to upgrade and expand an existing order
to 35 jets.
Airbus initially dismissed the threat posed by the new
generation of mid-sized aircraft as it focused on building the
world's largest airliner, the A380 superjumbo.
But faced with burgeoning Dreamliner sales, it changed tack
and overhauled the design of the A350 by adopting similar
composites technology in 2006.
To boost sales, Boeing is expected to confirm plans to build
a larger version of its Dreamliner. It is also overhauling its
777 with new engines and wings.