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Shanghai: China unveiled a prototype of its first home-grown passenger jet that it hopes will compete with airliners from Boeing Co. and Airbus Group SE, setting the stage for the plane’s first flight sometime next year.

A crowd of several thousand gathered on Monday as Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China, also known as Comac, rolled out the single-aisle C919 airliner at the company’s manufacturing and assembly centre in Pudong, near Shanghai’s main airport. The plane emerged from layers of red curtains with gold trimming to great applause and patriotic songs blaring from the sound system.

“The air transportation industry of China cannot completely rely on imports," Li Jiaxiang, head of China’s civil aviation administration, said in a speech. “A great nation must have its own large commercial aircraft."

China’s focus on a home-grown aerospace industry is part of a broader push to elevate its economy into the ranks of advanced industrialized nations by 2020. With a capacity for 168 passengers, the C919 aims to challenge the dominance of the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 in the market for planes with more than 100 seats.

Loftier Ambitions

Comac said on Monday it has received 517 purchase commitments for the plane. Nearly all are from Chinese customers, with only 21 orders from overseas.

On Monday, the first C919 rolled through the hangar with its wings above the heads of the cheering crowd, many of whom waved Chinese flags. The plane moved out of the hangar and stood parked on the tarmac, where people posed for group photos.

“It’s a wonderful day for Chinese civil aviation. There’s a great sense of national pride and achievement," said Russell Beck, a senior director of Panasonic Corp., who was visiting from California. Panasonic supplied the C919’s cabin communication equipment.

China’s aerospace ambitions go beyond the C919. Comac and Russia’s United Aircraft Corp. are aiming to sign an accord by the end of this year to build a wide-body plane together.

Engine Drive

The partnership with Russia could eventually grow to include the development of an engine. China is keen to develop its own engine for the C919, which initially will be powered by a version of the LEAP engine developed by CFM International Inc., a joint venture between GE Aviation LLC and a division of France’s Safran SA.

As part of its engine drive, China is considering a plan to pull various assets related to aerospace engines into a single company, according to people familiar with the matter. The plan is still in the initial stages and straddles multiple ministries.

Comac also is developing a smaller regional jet that’s expected to enter commercial service by the end of this year. The ARJ21 will compete with planes from Embraer SA and Bombardier Inc. as well as a new regional jet from Japan’s Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp.

Mitsubishi Aircraft put off the first test flight of its regional jet to later this month, its fifth delay. By comparison, Comac’s ARJ21 was expected to have its first flight in 2005, with commercial services beginning 18 months later, putting it nearly 10 years behind schedule. Bloomberg

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