Airbus A380 Makes Aviation History With Maiden Flight

BLAGNAC, France (AP) -- The world's largest passenger plane, the Airbus A380, completed its maiden flight Wednesday, a milestone for aviation and the European aircraft maker's battle with American rival Boeing Co.

The giant plane touched down to applause at 2:22 p.m (1222 GMT) after a flight of just under four hours. Nearly 30,000 spectators watched the behemoth take off and land, 101 years after the Wright brothers achieved the first controlled, sustained flight with their 274-kilogram (605-pound) aircraft.

''The first flight of a brand-new aircraft is a real milestone,'' said co-pilot Claude Lelaie. He called the A380 a ''marvelous aircraft.''

Before it landed, its front lights shining, the A380 did a slow fly-past above the airport in Blagnac, southwest France, where it had taken off at 10:29 a.m. (0829 GMT), its four engines surprisingly quiet as they hauled the double-decked, 280-metric ton (308-ton) fuselage aloft.

The white jet with a blue tail carried a crew of six and 20 metric tons (22 tons) of on-board test instruments. The crew, dressed in orange suits, waved happily when they threw open the door of the plane and descended the steps after landing.

''A new page in aviation history has been written,'' French President Jacques Chirac said. ''It is a magnficent result European industrial cooperation.''

The pilots checked the plane's basic handling characteristics while the on-board equipment recorded measurements for 150,000 separate parameters and beamed real-time data back to computers on the ground. The crew snapped souvenir photos in flight and after touching down.

They also took no chances - donning parachutes for the first flight. A handrail inside the test plane lead from the cockpit to an escape door that could have been jettisoned had the pilots lost control.

In Paris, French Cabinet ministers broke into applause when Chirac told them of the successful start to the flight. The head of competitor Boeing's French division, Yves Galland, said he had watched the televised takeoff and, just this once, ''shared the emotion of the people of Airbus.''

''The takeoff was absolutely perfect,'' chief test pilot Jacques Rosay told reporters by radio from the A380 cockpit as he flew at 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) just north of the Pyrenees mountains, about an hour into the flight. ''The weather's wonderful.''

The flight capped 11 years of preparation and euro10 billion (US$13 billion) in spending.

Orville and Wilbur Wright, in contrast, spent an estimated US$1,000 (euro770 at today's rates) developing their skeletal flyer which stayed airborne for 12 seconds on its first flight the morning of Dec. 17, 1903. Their plane was built of spruce and ash covered with muslin and weighed a mere 274 kilograms (605 pounds), according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Including its bulky test equipment, fittings and fuel, Airbus said the A380 weighed 421 metric tons (464 tons) on take-off Wednesday - about 75 percent of its maximum authorized takeoff weight for commercial flights.

Spectators camped out by the airport to be there for what some said was Europe's biggest aviation event since the first flight of the supersonic Concorde in 1969.

The A380, with a catalogue price of US$282 million (euro216 million), represents a huge bet by Airbus that airlines will need plenty of large aircraft to transport passengers between ever-busier hub airports. So far, Airbus has booked 154 orders for the A380, which it says will carry passengers 5 percent farther than Boeing's longest-range 747 jumbo at a per-passenger cost up to one-fifth below its rival's.

But Airbus has yet to prove that it can turn a profit on its investment, a third of which came from European governments. Some analysts say signs of a boom in the market for smaller, long-range jets like Boeing's long-range 787 ''Dreamliner'' show that Airbus was wrong to focus resources on the superjumbo at the expense of its own mid-sized A350 - which enters service in 2010, two years after its Boeing rival.

Just this week, Air Canada and Air India announced a total of 82 new orders for Boeing jets - including 41 787s - taking Boeing's Dreamliner order book to 237.

But Airbus CEO Noel Forgeard played down Boeing's recent orders and the 787's development lead, saying the battle for the market in smaller planes would be fought out over 20 years, not two.

Forgeard, who steps down later this year to become joint CEO of Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., congratulated the A380 development and test-flight team for a ''fantastic collective effort'' and said the plane would enter service in the ''second half of 2006'' - about three months behind the previous schedule.

Part of the delay is down to the superjumbo's struggle with a weight problem that consumed months of engineering time and most of the program's US$1.88 billion (euro1.45 billion) cost overrun. Competitive pressure on airlines to offer plusher, heavier business-class seating tightened the squeeze.

Airbus says the A380 test-flight program is likely to take over a year and finish soon before the plane enters service for Singapore Airlines in mid-2006.