The gleaming white CS100 plane lifted off the runway at Mirabel airport north of Montreal shortly before 10 a.m. ET as hundreds of Bombardier employees, suppliers and invited guests looked on. It returned to the airport about 2½ hours later.
The test flight, which had initially been scheduled for the end of 2012 and delayed several times since then, was carried live on the company's website.
The business jet was accompanied by a Global 5000 chase plane, which took a first pass along the flight route before the CSeries jet took off, and then flew parallel to it in order to convey any observations to its two pilots and flight engineer.
"It’s a very emotional day for all of us at Bombardier," said company president and CEO Pierre Beaudoin. "It takes a long time to develop an airplane; some [people] have been working on this for 10 years."
Guy Hachey, president and chief operating officer of Bombardier's aerospace division, admitted he shed a few tears when he saw the jet on which so much of Bombardier's future business and standing in the industry depends quietly lift off from runway.
"It's really a historic moment for us," Hachey said
"When you consider how long it's been since the last narrow-body [plane] has been launched — around 1986 — it's a very special moment in the industry."
The new plane promises to be quieter and more fuel efficient than Bombardier's existing commercial jets — although that remains to be confirmed in the additional test flights that will be done in the coming months.
Bombardier expects the aircraft, which is made of composite materials and has a Pratt & Whitney engine, will be 15 per cent less expensive to operate and burn 20 per cent less fuel than a similar sized plane currently in service.
The company hopes the new jet will better position it to compete against its main rivals, Boeing and Airbus.
There will be two versions of the 100 to 149-seat CSeries aircraft, with the first planes expected to be delivered within a year of the test flight. The company has said it has secured 177 firm orders and 211 commitments from 13 customers for the two CSeries models.
Karl Moore of McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management described the first flight as largely symbolic given the years of computer and on-ground testing the plane has undergone.
"At one level, it's a non-event because it's going to work for sure. But I think it's the symbolism of it, and it allows them to go through that phase, get the data they need to go into production," he said.
Walter Spracklin of RBC Capital Markets said he expects orders for the CSeries will ramp up in the first half of 2014 after flight data compiled over about three months confirms promised savings. The greatest potential for new business will come once the plane is in service, he said.
"Engine testing to date has been coming in better than expected, and we see limited risk that the CSeries will not live up to performance claims," he wrote in a report, adding that company officials have confirmed that order inquiries are starting to pick up.
He sees Air Canada, a Chinese airline, Flydubai and Swiss Air as the top candidates to place orders. Spracklin said the CSeries is under serious consideration for at least 30 to 50 aircraft as part of Air Canada's search for up to 100 new narrow-body planes to replace its Embraer single-aisle aircraft.
Fadi Chamoun of BMO Capital Markets expects the CSeries will capture 30 per cent market share or about 2,100 deliveries over 20 years. Since its launch in July 2008, the CSeries has captured about 23 per cent of the 770 aircraft orders in this seat range.
"We believe that it will be challenging for the CSeries program to generate a 'home-run'-type return on capital for Bombardier given stiff competition and the sizable up-front investment," he wrote.
Embraer's new E2 family of jets, particularly the E195 will be a challenger to the CSeries, Chamoun added.
Airlines are reluctant to add a new aircraft type in their fleet, but the CSeries would become more attractive as it approaches entry-into-service and validates the industry-leading per seat costs, he noted. Bombardier has also been reluctant to sell many early planes at large discounts, arguing it only needs to produce 10 per month to generate a reasonable return on investment.