China's first fully homegrown commercial aircraft, the ARJ-21, rolled off the production line Friday, marking a major step in the country's aviation program.
In a nationally televised ceremony, the Xiangfeng, or "Flying Phoenix," was towed into a hangar at the Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing Factory amid flashing laser lights and rousing band music.
"Today, China's aviation industry has turned over a new leaf," Lin Zuoming, general manager of China Aviation Industry Corp. I, or AVIC I, said in comments carried on the news channel of China Central Television.
The rollout ceremony was closed to most media, apart from state-run CCTV and the official Xinhua News Agency.
The maiden flight of the jet is planned for March. It will carry up to 90 passengers and have a flight range of 2,000 nautical miles (2,300 miles or 3,680 kilometers), Xinhua said.
AVIC I expects the jet to get its airworthiness certificate in the first half of 2009 and plans to begin deliveries to customers in the third quarter of 2009, it said.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration opened an office in Shanghai in March that is working with China's General Administration of Civil Aviation to meet safety standards and gain certification for the jet.
Original plans called for the jet to be ready by late 2005, but design problems forced a delay.
The highly touted project aims to make state-owned AVIC I a competitor to other makers of smaller passenger jets, such as Canada's Bombardier Inc. and Brazil's Embraer SA, while laying the groundwork for development of a commercial jet twice the size of the ARJ-21.
"A country's aviation industry is not complete unless it is able to produce civilian aircraft," said AVIC I's Lin.
The manufacturer says the ARJ-21 is expected to grab up to 60 percent of the domestic market for mid-size regional airliners over the next 20 years.
China will need about 900 mid-sized regional jets over the next two decades, the company estimates, as economic growth drives an expansion of air travel and airlines look for planes best tailored to feeder routes.