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On first flight, 747-8 Intercontinental a new icon in the sky

The biggest and most fuel-efficient passenger airplane in Boeing's history begins first test flight before thousands of spectators in Washington.

Boeings 747-8 Intercontinental takes off for its first flight. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

EVERETT, Wash.--If you don't think that the latest model of an airplane that first took to the air 42 years ago could be fresh, majestic, and iconic upon its own initial foray into sky, then you didn't see Boeing's 747-8 Intercontinental take off on its first flight today.

Resplendent in its all-new orange, red, and white livery, and sparkling in the mid-morning sun, the biggest and most fuel-efficient passenger airplane in Boeing's history took off from Paine Field here at 9:58 a.m. PT before a cheering crowd of hundreds, if not thousands, of company employees and their families, 747 fans, and dozens of journalists and other observers. Just prior to take-off, a voice on a public address system here was heard to say, "Ready, ready, go." And go it did.

The plane is being piloted by Mark Feuerstein and Paul Stemer.

To some, the 747 line is an outdated relic of late-1960s-era aviation romanticism, but it was hard to think of the Intercontinental as anything but the cutting edge of design as its beautiful figure, complete with lovely curved wings and a gleaming paint job, made its way gracefully into the sky above Boeing's giant assembly plant here, the largest building in the world by volume.

The plan is for the plane to be airborne for at least a couple of hours, during which time it will fly west over Puget Sound and conduct a series of tests before landing in the early afternoon at Boeing Field in Seattle.

Boeing has been working on the 747-8 Intercontinental for years, and last month, it formally unveiled the new jumbo jet at a huge ceremony here. The cargo version of the plane, the 747-8 Freighter, made its own first flight on February 8, 2010. The Intercontinental has suffered some delays, but nothing along the lines of what its cousin, Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, has gone through: an on-board instrument fire, supply-chain problems, a machinists' strike, and more.

Now playing: Watch this: Boeing 747-8 take-off

This 747-8 Intercontinental, the first off the assembly line, completed its last major pre-flight test on Friday, the so-called taxi test. During that procedure, the plane's pilots took it up to a speed of 90 knots--103 miles an hour--and lifted its nose gear from the pavement at Paine Field.

On March 13, Boeing completed what is known as gauntlet testing on the plane. That is meant to simulate "flight conditions to test systems and ensure flight readiness," and to "put the airplane through its paces," Boeing said. In addition to successfully completing the taxi and gauntlet tests, today's first flight also required readiness reviews and the arrival of documentation from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

Currently, Boeing expects to make its first customer delivery of a 747-8 Intercontinental sometime later this year.

Boeing bills the new 747-8 as the next-generation of its most iconic plane and as the most fuel- and cost-efficient passenger aircraft it has produced. One major highlight is its new wing design. Created using what Boeing calls "the latest in computational fluid dynamics validated in the world's most sophisticated wind tunnels," the all-new wings are said to offer better aerodynamics and improved fuel capacity, while also allowing the plane to be as fast as, or faster than, any other passenger aircraft in the world.

The new wing design sports "fly-by-wire spoilers and ailerons that make it possible to incorporate a flight control feature known as a maneuver load-alleviation system," Boeing said. "Pioneered on the 787 Dreamliner, it changes the lift distribution over the wing during non-normal flight conditions, reducing the load on its outboard portion." This translates into a smaller wing structure that is 1,400 pounds lighter than that used on the 747-current-generation 747-400 while not compromising structural integrity.

Boeing is aggressively touting the plane's economic and green credentials: it is the only passenger plane in the 400- to 500-seat market, its four General Electric GEnx 2B engines use 16 percent less fuel per seat than those on the 747-400 and 11 percent less than does Airbus' giant A380.

This is all possible, Boeing said, because of its use of advanced materials in the construction and design of the plane, as well as its use of the GEnx engines, and the form factor and materials of its wings. While most of the plane is made from new aluminum alloys, it also incorporates graphite composites in the rudder, spoilers, flaps, and other areas.

As designed, the 747-8 Intercontinental will carry 467 passengers in a three-class configuration and has a range of 8,000 nautical miles. The freighter version of the 747-8 can fly up to 4,390 nautical miles. The Intercontinental has a wing span of 224 feet, 7 inches, and is 250 feet, 2 inches long. Its tail towers to 63 feet, 6 inches high. And its four GEnx-2B67 engines produce 66,500 pounds of thrust. The passenger plane's top cruising speed is Mach 0.86, while the freighter can fly at Mach 0.845.

Correction (Sunday, 10:02 p.m. PDT): A previous version of this story inadvertently misidentified the aircraft that experienced a series of delays, including an onboard fire. Those delays hit the 787 Dreamliner..