It took almost 10 years and about $3.5 billion, but Canadian company Bombardier's much-anticipated new commercial jet, the CSeries, successfully completed its maiden flight Monday.
The gleaming white CS100, which Bombardier promises will be larger, quieter and more fuel efficient than anything in its commercial fleet, lifted off the runway at Mirabel airport north of Montreal shortly before 10 a.m. ET as hundreds of Bombardier employees, suppliers and invited guests looked on. It returned to the airport about 2½ hours later.
The test flight had initially been scheduled for the end of 2012 and was delayed several times.
The business jet was accompanied by a Global 5000 chase plane, which took a first pass along the flight route before the CSeries jet took off, and then flew parallel to it in order to convey any observations to its two pilots and flight engineer.
During the test flight, the jet stayed within about 48 kilometres of the airport, flying north toward Morin Heights and looping back around. It reached an altitude of 3,800 metres and a speed of 425 km/h.
"It’s a very emotional day for all of us at Bombardier," said company president and CEO Pierre Beaudoin. "It takes a long time to develop an airplane; some [people] have been working on this for 10 years."
Guy Hachey, president and chief operating officer of Bombardier's aerospace division, admitted he shed a few tears when he saw the jet that Bombardier hopes will better position it to compete against its main rivals, Boeing and Airbus, quietly lift off from the runway.
"It's really a historic moment for us," Hachey said.
"When you consider how long it's been since the last narrow-body [plane] has been launched — around 1986 — it's a very special moment in the industry."
Flew according to predictions
Chief test pilot Chuck Ellis told media after the flight that it was hard to describe how it felt to fly the plane because it performed pretty much as he and his colleagues expected it would based on the years of simulations, computational models and wind tunnel and other tests they had done.
"In many ways, we didn't learn anything new; we validated everything we did know," he said.
Ellis, his first officer, Andris Litavniks, and flight engineer Andreas Hartono performed a set of tests during the flight and noted only minor differences from how Bombardier's engineers predicted the jet would behave, Ellis said.
"The best thing we can say about an airplane is it flew just like we expected," he said.
The pilot and crew received only one "advisory message" about one of the plane's sub-systems during the flight, but Ellis said it related to a minor issue that did not affect the plane and would not have halted a commercial flight, for example. He did not specify the nature of the warning.
More test flights to come
The test flight was only the first of many for the CS100 and the other four models planned for production in the CSeries family of commercial jets, which will range in size from 100 to 149 seats. The jets are at various stages of assembly, with the first ones expected to be delivered to customers in about 12 months.
Bombardier promises that the CSeries jet, which is made of lightweight but strong composite materials and has Pratt & Whitney engines, will be quieter and more fuel efficient than existing commercial jets — but that remains to be confirmed in more exhaustive tests that will be performed during a series of additional test flights in the coming months.
Bombardier says the CSeries jets will be 15 per cent less expensive to operate and burn 20 per cent less fuel than a similar sized plane currently in service, but those parameters were not all put to the test Monday.
In many respects, Monday's test was a "failure case," Ellis said, because the crew did not push the plane to the full extent of its capabilities, operating the engines at reduced thrust and using a longer runway than the jet could handle.
One of the promised features that did come across in dramatic fashion was how quiet the jet's engines are.
"Some of the people actually missed the beginning of the flight," said Rob Dewar, vice-president and general manger of the CSeries program.
Dewar joked that because the flight took off a few minutes earlier than announced and the engines were so quiet, people who happened to be looking in another direction didn't know the jet was even taking off.
"I think it’s the first time we've been early in the program," he said of the early start, alluding to the many delays that have plagued the CSeries over the course of its 10-year development.
Porter impressed with test flight
'We have now convinced investors, suppliers, customers, future potential customers that the aircraft is delivering what we said it would.' -— Mike Arcamone, Bombardier
Bombardier has said it has secured 177 firm orders and 211 commitments from 15 customers for the CSeries, with the two most recent customers signing up at the Moscow air show last month. Bombardier said several customers were at Mirabel Monday to get a firsthand look at the product.
"We have now convinced investors, suppliers, customers, future potential customers that the aircraft is delivering what we said it would, and it's going to be a game changer," said Mike Arcamone, president of Bombardier's commercial aircraft division.
Robert Deluce, president and CEO of Toronto-based Porter Airlines, was one of the potential CSeries customers watching Monday's test flight. The Toronto-based airline plans to use the CSeries to expand its service from an enlarged island airport in Toronto's downtown.
Deluce said he's looking forward to receiving test data to confirm the CSeries engines are as quiet as expected — and to silencing some local critics who fear an expansion of the tiny airport would increase the already contentious noise pollution caused by air traffic over downtown and nearby Toronto Island, beloved by locals for its relative isolation from the hustle and bustle of the city.
"I think the test data that Bombardier will be able to produce now that this test program is underway should flow to the city [of Toronto] and help validate in due course the information it needs to give the approval [for Porter's expansion]," he said.
Given the years of computer and on-ground testing the plane has undergone, Monday's flight was largely symbolic, says Karl Moore of McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management.
"At one level, it's a non-event because it's going to work for sure, but I think it's the symbolism of it, and it allows them to go through that phase, get the data they need to go into production," he said.
The markets were similarly underwhelmed by Monday's event, and Bombardier's stock fell 1.2 per cent, closing at $4.93 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Air Canada a potential customer
Walter Spracklin of RBC Capital Markets said he expects orders for the CSeries will increase in the first half of 2014 after flight data compiled over about three months confirms promised savings. The greatest potential for new business will come once the plane is in service, he said.
"Engine testing to date has been coming in better than expected, and we see limited risk that the CSeries will not live up to performance claims," he wrote in a report, adding that company officials have confirmed that order inquiries are starting to pick up.
He sees Air Canada, a Chinese airline, Flydubai and Swiss Air as the top candidates to place orders. Spracklin said the CSeries is under serious consideration for at least 30 to 50 aircraft as part of Air Canada's search for up to 100 new narrow-body planes to replace its Embraer single-aisle aircraft.
Fadi Chamoun of BMO Capital Markets expects the CSeries will capture 30 per cent market share or about 2,100 deliveries over 20 years. Since its launch in July 2008, the CSeries has captured about 23 per cent of the 770 aircraft orders in this seat range.
"We believe that it will be challenging for the CSeries program to generate a 'home-run'-type return on capital for Bombardier given stiff competition and the sizable up-front investment," he wrote.
Embraer's new E2 family of jets, particularly the E195 will be a challenger to the CSeries, Chamoun added.
Airlines are reluctant to add a new aircraft type in their fleet, but the CSeries would become more attractive as it approaches entry-into-service and validates the industry-leading per seat costs, he noted. Bombardier has also been reluctant to sell many early planes at large discounts, arguing it only needs to produce 10 per month to generate a reasonable return on investment.