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Boeing 737 MAX ascent
Boeing’s 737 MAX jet rises into the sky after taking off from Renton. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

Boeing’s newest breed of airplane, the fuel-efficient 737 MAX, took to the air for the first time today – and the first pilots to fly it had nothing but glowing reviews.

“This is our first airplane of our second century, and I just have to say, wow, this is an amazing machine,” chief test pilot Craig Bomben told reporters afterward at Seattle’s Boeing Field, in a reference to the Boeing Co.’s centennial this year.

737 MAX chief pilot Ed Wilson said that the nearly three-hour flight occasionally got “a little rough up there,” due to the rainy weather, but that the plane worked like a charm. “This airplane is ready to go to test. … We are off and running,” he said.

For this first flight, the jet was limited to traveling at a speed of no more than 250 knots, and rising no higher than 25,000 feet. “We just let it cruise,” Wilson said.

The latest incarnation of the long-lived 737 line will undergo months of testing and certification, leading up to the first deliveries to customers in 2017. Southwest Airlines, which is due to receive the first planes, tweeted its congratulations during the nearly three-hour maiden flight:

The 737 MAX is designed to be 14 percent more fuel-efficient than the current generation of 737s. “Hopefully, we can do even better than 14 percent” as the planes are fine-tuned, said Keith Leverkuhn, Boeing vice president and general manager of the 737 MAX program.

The improvements are due to the plane’s upgraded (and quieter) LEAP-1B engines, plus a host of aerodynamic tweaks that include “dual feather” winglets.

The single-aisle 737 MAX will compete with Airbus’ A320neo jets, which has a head start on orders. Airbus’ tally is more than 4,400 orders, compared with 3,072 for the 737 MAX. The first A320neo was delivered to Lufthansa earlier this month.

747 MAX takeoff
The 737 MAX jet takes off from a rainy runway in Renton. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)
737 MAX towed
After landing at Boeing Field, the 737 MAX is towed on the runway. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)
Pilot Craig Bomben
Boeing test pilot Craig Bomben puts on a happy face for his 6-year-old son, Luca, after the 737 MAX landing (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

Leverkuhn put a positive spin on the competition: “We think we have a terrific product here, not only in terms of technology … and the fuel savings that we are really confident of achieving, but we think it’s going to be the preferred airplane as well,” he said.

Bomben said he was amazed at how quiet the bare-bones cabin was during the flight. “I can only imagine how quiet it’s going to be with an interior,” he said.

The planes are built at Boeing’s plant in Renton, Wash., and the plan for ramping up production calls for gradually expanding MAX assembly to all three of the plant’s 737 lines.

About 4,000 employees turned out on a rainy morning in Renton to see off the first 737 MAX, christened “The Spirit of Renton,” on its maiden flight. One of the VIPs in the crowd was Pat Shanahan, senior vice president of airplane programs for Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Shanahan told GeekWire that he felt a “balance of anxiety and excitement” as he watched the plane take off.

“It’s no different from the birth of a child,” he said. A bit later, however, he noted that there’s at least one difference: “Now we want to do it about 10,000 more times.”

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