Russia carried out the maiden flight of its new MC-21 medium-range passenger plane on Sunday. Its makers and backers hope the MC-21 will one day rival the better-known products of their Western competitors.

Pronounced ‘m-s’ as the Cyrillic ‘c’ is like an English ‘s’, and sometimes written as MS-21, the MC-21 is the first post-Soviet foray into production of a mainline commercial aircraft.

In a surprise statement, manufacturer Irkut Corporation and its state-controlled parent company United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) said an MC-21-300 model had successfully completed a 30-minute flight at a height of 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) and travelling at 300 kilometres per hour (186 mph).

“The flight mission has been completed. The flight was fine, there were no observations which will prevent further testing,” test pilot Oleg Kononenko was quoted as saying.

Squeezed by Western sanctions over its role in the Ukraine crisis, Russia is trying to rejuvenate domestic industrial production to make the country less dependent on foreign firms.

The test flight was not announced to media beforehand. It came just three weeks after China staged the maiden flight of its new C919 passenger jet, highlighting the growing competition to industry heavyweights US Boeing and Europe’s Airbus.

Russian officials have said the MC-21 is superior to its Western-made counterparts in many respects and will be snapped up by Russian and foreign carriers. But industry analysts say both Russia and China face a huge challenge to break the transatlantic airplane duopoly.

The jet flew for 30 minutes at a height of 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) and a speed of 300 kilometres per hour (186 mph).

An unusual test flight

Western aviation sources expressed surprise at the flight’s brevity and relatively low altitude compared with recent 3-4 hour debuts of North American and European models.

“It suggests they either have severe limitations or may have had something happen and decided to come back,” said a Western flight test engineer, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A source at a western plane maker called it a “genteel flight.”

A spokesman for Russia’s UAC said the flight had been long enough to test everything that needed checking in the air.

Russia has fought hard to shake off its Soviet reputation for old and creaking aircraft flown by inexperienced crews.

In a sign of improvement, flag carrier Aeroflot last year earned its fourth star from independent ratings website Skytrax, ranking it alongside major European and Middle Eastern competitors and ahead of big US carriers such as Delta and United.

Firm orders, but not yet a threat to Airbus, Boeing

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin called Irkut General Director Oleg Demchenko to congratulate him and his employees on what the Kremlin called “a significant event.”

The twin-engine MC-21 will be built in two variants: the MC-21-300 which will have 160-211 seats, and the later MC-21-200 which will have 130-165 seats.

Production of the MC-21 is expected to start in the next two years. Russian state media say UAC has signed contracts with domestic and foreign carriers, with Irkut saying so far it had “firm orders” for 175 of the planes.

America’s Boeing and Europe’s Airbus remain far ahead of their Chinese and Russian rivals, with bigger sales books and more advanced technical know-how.

But the MC-21 could win sales in Russia and some eastern European and Asian countries, industry analysts say, with buyers attracted by its lower running costs.

Irkut said operational costs for its new plane will be up to 15 percent cheaper than current generation aircraft.

With a range of up to 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles), the MC-21 will be competing against the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 aircraft which currently dominate the medium-range narrow-body market. Both companies recently upgraded those families to achieve comparable 15 percent operational savings compared to previous versions.

State defence conglomerate Rostec, which is headed by Putin associate Sergei Chemezov, said it had agreed to purchase 85 aircrafts. At least 50 of them will be leased to Aeroflot, Rostec said. The carrier currently operates a fleet dominated by narrow-body Airbus models, including 70 A320s.

UAC President Yury Slyusar said he estimated global demand for the new MC-21 models at around 15,000 aircraft over the next 20 years. “I’m sure the airlines will appreciate our new aircraft,” he said.

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