China gets ready for takeoff

  @FortuneMagazine October 31, 2013: 6:43 AM ET
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Exterior and interior views of a mockup of Comac's C919 jetliner in a factory in Shanghai


Five of us are jammed into the cockpit of China's latest manufacturing feat. We're on the outskirts of Shanghai, inside a gleaming factory of the state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China, known as Comac. Two security guards patrol the sprawling assembly area below and keep an eye on us visitors wearing white laboratory coats. I've already been admonished for trying to sneak a coffee onto the floor.

There are two types of airplane here. One is a small regional jet called the ARJ21. The other is the one we're inside. Named the C919, it's the kind of large jetliner you would fly in from Atlanta to New York. "The better one!" says a public relations man, one of four Comac employees huddled in the cockpit the size of a small car.

Inside, the men pull down bright-green glass displays. They wiggle a joystick. Instruments are examined. Someone points out the plane's similarities to an Airbus jetliner, and the group begins talking about China's one day joining the aviation industry's elite players, Airbus and rival Boeing. They seem to be saying, "This is the plane that gets us there."

Only after we walk down the stairway back onto the factory floor a few minutes later does the full reality settle in: We're staring up at a life-size model plane made of plastic. The green displays aren't real. The actual C919 is still being designed.

Comac is an aviation experiment on a scale the world has never seen. The five-year-old company aims to go from constructing model airplanes to producing commercial jetliners in less than a decade -- in an industry that's been dominated by Europe's Airbus and America's Boeing for so long that "duopoly" as a description seems to have shed any negative meaning.

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