Seattle: US aerospace giant Boeing`s newest and biggest jumbo jet, the 747-8 Intercontinental, made its maiden flight on Sunday, watched closely by aviation fans and European rival Airbus.
The new version of the classic double-decker 747 took off into nearly cloudless skies at 9:58 am (16:58 GMT) from the Paine Field airport near Boeing`s Seattle headquarters, watched by thousands of workers and guests.
The red, white and orange-liveried aircraft landed just over four hours later having been taken through its paces over Washington state, on the northwest Pacific coast.
"It just went perfectly," said chief test pilot Mark Feuerstein after the flight, adding that, while it still faces months of test flights before being certified, "the airplane is actually ready to go fly right now”.
Boeing`s largest passenger plane, the 747-8 can carry 467 passengers in a three-class configuration and is designed for long-haul routes.
The plane is a longer and more fuel-efficient update of Boeing`s double-decker 747 jumbo jet, and will compete with European rival Airbus`s A380, the world`s biggest passenger plane.
Among those watching the maiden flight was Joe Sutter, the chief engineer of the original 747.
In a tribute to Sutter -- celebrating his 90th birthday on Monday -- the initials "JFS" were painted on the landing gear bay door of the first 747-8 Intercontinental.
"It makes me feel real good. The fellas are telling me I`m part of the team," he said.
The double-deck A380 entered service in 2007 and can carry 525 passengers in the same configuration.
Boeing insists the 747-8 is not a rival to the A380, but complementary to it -- noting that both Lufthansa and Korean Air have ordered both.
But Airbus sees the new Boeing plane as a straight competitor. Airbus commercial director John Leahy didn`t conceal his feelings when Air China announced earlier this month it was going for the A-380 over the 747-8.
"That was very disappointing. We did think we had a better offer with the A380 at that particular juncture. You win some, you lose some," he told the Financial Times.
The 747-8 -- the world`s longest aircraft at 76.4 meters (250 feet) -- was unveiled to the public in February, six years after the project was announced in 2005, and roughly two years behind schedule.
The new aircraft now has to undergo more than 600 hours of test flight, to be ready be certified at the end of the year, said senior Boeing executive Elizabeth Lund, at a press conference with chief test pilot Feuerstein.
Using 787 Dreamliner engine technology, Boeing says its new aircraft will achieve better fuel economy than any competing jetliner. Compared with the A380 the new plane`s per seat-mile costs are more than six percent lower, it said.
The first 747-8 is due to be delivered to an as-year-unidentified customer -- although it is not an airline -- in late 2011.
Lufthansa, which has ordered 20, is expected to be the first airline to receive the new model in early 2012, Boeing said last month. When the order was announced in 2006, the German airline expected first delivery in 2010.
To date, the 747-8 program has garnered a relatively modest 114 orders, only 38 of which are for the passenger version -- including an order for five from Air China which is still awaiting a government green light.
Luxembourg`s Cargolux is scheduled to take delivery of the first 747-8 freighter in the middle of this year -- out of 76 cargo versions so far ordered -- nearly two years later than the original target delivery date.
The first Dreamliner is due to be delivered this summer to Japanese airline ANA, more than three years behind schedule.