The giant plane touched down to applause at 2.22pm (1222 GMT) on Wednesday at Blagnac in southwest France, 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 274kg aircraft.

 

Before it landed, its front lights shining, the A380 did a slow fly-past above the Blagnac airport, where it had taken off at 10.29am (0829 GMT), its four engines surprisingly quiet as they hauled the double-decked, 280-tonne fuselage aloft.

 

The white jet with a blue tail carried a crew of six and 20 tonnes of on-board test instruments.

 

Real-time data

 

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

 

Airbus executives expect more
orders for the aircraft this year

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.

 

Rosay, his co-pilot Claude Lelaie and four fellow crew members 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.

 

Aviation history

 

Airbus said the A380 had made aviation history and set out plans for up to 2500 hours of test flights to pave the way for the A380 to enter service in the second half of 2006.

 

Jacques Rosay, one of the test pilots, said: "The speed on takeoff was exactly as we had expected. The weather is wonderful. Everything is absolutely perfect and we are very happy."

 

It has taken more than a decade and $15.68 billion to develop the A380. It has been subsidised by European governments and has yet to prove it can make a profit.

 

The A380 ended the four-decade reign of Boeing's 747 jumbo as the biggest airliner to have flown. It looks like a 747 with the upper deck stretched all the way to the tail.

 

European success

 

French President Jacques Chirac has hailed the project as "an immense European success" and described the new plane as a "cruise ship of the skies".

 

The French cabinet, meeting at the time, burst into applause when Chirac announced the takeoff.

 

The A380 has enough room on its
wings to park up to 70 cars

The A380 is 15m wider, 4m taller, 2m longer and 118 tonnes heavier than the 747 jumbo, which helped change the airline business.

 

The length of eight London buses, it has enough room on its wings to park 70 cars.

 

Airbus has a combined 154 orders and commitments from 15 customers, and Forgeard said he expected more orders this year, although not in the next few days.

 

The plane has a list price of $285 million. Airbus says it needs to sell 250 of the A380 planes to break even, although some analysts put the figure as high as 700.

 

Rivalry

 

Boeing has vowed to end the dominance of Airbus, which has outsold the US plane maker every year since 2001. The two rivals are locked in a struggle in which each accuses the other of having unfair subsidies.

 

Boeing has been focusing on a much smaller money-saver in the 787 Dreamliner which is due in 2008, and has won two big deals in the past few days.

 

Air-India approved the purchase of up to 50 long-range Boeing aircraft - including 27 of the new 787 long-range jets - at a cost of about $6.9 billion on Tuesday, in a deal that is subject to Indian government approval.

 

That followed a $6 billion order for 32 wide-bodied Boeing jets from Air Canada on Monday.