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Chinese-made plane steals the (air) show

November 16, 2010 |  7:39 am

Thousands of spectators flocked to China’s largest air show Tuesday to catch a glimpse of People’s Liberation Army Air Force J-10 fighter jets and watch as Airbus’ massive A380 conducted aerial maneuvers in the hazy southern Chinese sky.

But it was the state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China, also known as COMAC, that stole the thunder on the opening day of the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai by announcing it had secured 100 orders for its potentially game-changing C919 jetliner.

The 156-seater would represent China’s biggest homegrown plane and is being produced specifically to knock Boeing and Airbus off their perch as the top two sellers of larger aircraft. The jetliner will use mostly foreign parts that will be shared with Chinese joint-venture companies and is targeted for release in 2016.

In a press conference at the air show that was closed to the press save state-owned media, COMAC officials confirmed rumors that had been floating for weeks that orders had been placed by state-owned carriers Air China, China Eastern and China Southern as well as aircraft leasing company GE Capital Aviation Services. GE is partnered in making the C919’s engine.

COMAC monopolized one wing of an exhibition hall to showcase a to-scale mock-up of the front half of the jet-to-be. A steady line of visitors waited patiently to climb aboard and try out the leather seats outfitted with personal TVs (which happened to be loaded with movies such as “Sherlock Holmes” and “Alice in Wonderland").

“It’s a bit plain,” said Vicky Li, 22, a university student and aviation buff. “I felt like I was sitting on a bus.”

Elsewhere, exhibitors showed off a variety of products, including flight simulators and military drones. Mustachioed members of Pakistan’s Sherdils aerobatic team roamed the grounds with "Top Gun" swagger. Major participants hosted clients in stylish reception rooms. Champagne flowed in the Airbus room. An espresso machine hissed in the PLA Air Force lounge.

Makers of small, private aircraft were buzzing over word that China may liberalize its airspace soon. China’s Air Force has long restricted the nation’s skies, to the chagrin of the handful of ultra-rich Chinese who only recently acquired a taste for private planes.

“We’re very optimistic about China,” said Roger Sperry, a senior vice president for Gulfstream of Savannah, Ga., inside a tent near the runway. The luxury-jet maker classed up the event with a $64.5-million G450 that was practically preening on the tarmac surrounded by picture takers.

In one of the highlights of the day, Airbus test pilots took the Airbus A380 for a low altitude spin around the Zhuhai airport. The mammoth plane gracefully pitched and climbed in what seemed impossibly slow speeds, akin to an elephant performing ballet.

“It doesn’t feel like a big airplane,” said Peter Chandler, Airbus’ chief test pilot, who was charged with flying the 590-ton plane Tuesday. “People are under the impression it needs a long runway to land, but that’s not true.”

Although it may be decades before a Chinese manufacturer such as COMAC will compete in the A380’s size class, analysts believe the C919 can make a difference in the mid-size jet class –- the industry’s bread and butter. How serious the major rivals are taking the new competition is unclear. A Boeing official visiting Beijing recently said he was unimpressed by COMAC’s technology. And on Tuesday, Airbus’ leading executive in China, Laurence Barron, told reporters the company wasn’t worried.

"We were born into competition 40 years ago, and now we are No. 1,” he said. “Frankly, we are used to it. Where's the big deal?”

-- David Pierson in Zhuhai, China