Renton, Washington (CNN) — "It flew beautifully. We worked through checks but there were no issues."
That was the proclamation delivered today by Captain Ed Wilson upon the successful completion of the maiden flight of Boeing's 737 MAX in Seattle, taking the program a step closer to its Entry Into Service (EIS).
The fourth generation of this family of aircraft comes to compete directly against the Airbus A320neo family aircraft in an ongoing battle to dominate the global narrow-body market segment.
After its introduction last December, the aircraft underwent pre-flight preparations, which included taxi tests successfully achieved yesterday.
With its first flight completed, it will be prepared for the flight-test campaign as it's the first of four MAX aircraft that will be used to test and certify the program with the Federal Aviation Administration.
According to Boeing's chief project engineer Michael Teal, the aircraft's test fleet will wrap up the campaign by the end of the year.
After type certification, it'll go to launch customer Southwest Airlines -- the world's largest 737 operator -- in the third quarter of 2017.
This would be the second time Southwest launches a 737 variant, as it did in 1981 with the 737-300 program, which entered service in 1984.
4,000 gather to watch first flight
Skies were cloudy, but the mood was bright after the 737 MAX's successful first flight.
A crew of two commanded by Wilson, chief pilot 737 Program and pilot in command, and Craig Bomben, VP of Flight Test, took the 737 MAX to a short taxi down to Runway 34 at Renton Municipal Airport in Washington state.
Takeoff took place at 9:48 a.m. local time, receiving the applause of around 4,000 Boeing employees, media members and invitees who attended to the event.
The light window was pushed forward due to adverse weather conditions.
The aircraft soared under typical Seattle stormy, threatening skies, which are almost the norm for the Boeing First Flights, like the 787-8 in December 2009.
Bomben noted that "other then deteriorating weather at Renton, we had no butterflies or jitters in our stomachs. We did get out of Renton in the nick of time."
The aircraft (N8701Q MSN 42554/LN 5602), named Spirit of Renton, flew for two hours and 47 minutes over the west of Washington under the call sign BOE1, and landed on Boeing Field's runway 13 at 12:35 p.m.
The aircraft limited its speed to 250 knots and initially climbed to 15,000 feet (4,570 meters), and later climbed higher than 20,000 feet (6,096 meters).
The flight never exceeded 250 knots, but, perhaps owing to the maturity of the basic platform, the landing gear was retracted -- "cleaning up the airframe" -- for flight testing.
"Go Slow" schedule
Boeing says the 737 MAX's new engine marks an improvement in efficiency.
"We were amazed at how quiet the cabin was," said Captain Wilson after the flight. "I took a walk mid-flight through the cabin and was impressed."
Wilson also noted that the aircraft may return to flight test tomorrow after inspections.
The second MAX aircraft built will be incorporated into the test program within a month.
The third and fourth MAX's are in varying stages of completion on Renton's "Go Slow" Surge Final Assembly Line.
Boeing's third 737 line, designated just for the MAX, is completing a single 737 MAX at a rate of around one per month during the ramp up.
This contrasts to one 737 NG about every 11 days.
Reliable family of aircraft
The 737 MAX family aircraft is powered by a new generation of CFM engines.
According to Boeing, the CFM LEAP-1B is set to deliver a 15% improvement in fuel burn efficiency on the 737 MAX, compared to the current family aircraft in production (the 737 Next Generation or 737NG), complying with today's stringent noise restrictions (as evidenced by today's whisper-like takeoff), while maintaining the remarkable reliability and low operational costs of its predecessor, the CFM56 engine family.
Currently, Boeing's order book for the 737 MAX family aircraft stands at 2,827 aircraft, spanning 62 customers.
[This story has been updated. Original version reported 737 MAX has "more than 40" customers.]
The largest orders come from Indonesia's Lion Air (201 MAX 9 aircraft), Southwest Airlines (200 MAX 8), American Airlines and Norwegian Air Shuttle (100 MAX 8 each) and Ryanair (100 MAX 200 aircraft, a high-density version of the 8 MAX).
Sixty percent of the orders to date correspond to the MAX 8 variant.
Yesterday, Boeing delivered the 8,888th 737 after nearly 50 years since the 737 first began production.