After a 4 hr., 25 min. flight, Boeing captains Mark Feuerstein and Paul Stemer brought the first 747-8 Intercontinental passenger test article (RC001) to a landing at Boeing Field in Seattle on a sunny yet blustery day.

The flight began at 9:59 a.m. PDT—a minute ahead of the official schedule—from Paine Field in Everett, Wash., Boeing’s widebody assembly site north of Seattle.

With Feuerstein in command, the two pilots flew over the San Juan Straits along the Canadian boarder, journeyed into eastern Washington and also worked their way along the Olympic Peninsula. As with all Boeing first flights, they ran through a checklist to verify the new airplane’s basic handling characteristics.

The 700,000-lb. passenger 747-8 benefited from the nearly 2,000 flights already conducted on the cargo version of the aircraft. “It was the cleanest first flight of a new airplane I’ve ever seen,” said Feuerstein. It was so clean that he and Stemer went through a number of flight exercises that normally would have come later in the program. These included turning off some stability augmentation “to see what the first aircraft flies like; it was absolutely nominal,” he said. Other tests included approaching stall and a “steady heading,” in which he turned the rudder completely to one side to side-slip the nose while continuing a straight-ahead direction.

Their flight path took them north to the straits of San Juan, then back across Mount Baker, Wash. They spent most of their time in eastern Washington. In all cases, they needed to stay within terminal control. They achieved a top altitude of 20,000 ft. and went as fast as 250 knots and as slowly as 105 knots, which approaches the aircraft’s stall speed.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes VP and General Manager of Airplane Programs Pat Shanahan said the flight had taken place within 15 days of flight test’s plan a year ago, a good sign for a company whose 787 and previous 747-8 programs have been battered by delays.

Making a first flight in the 747-8 was not new to Feuerstein, who also commanded the first flight of the 747-8 Freighter with Tom Imrich in the right seat on Feb. 8, 2010. Three freighters are now in test flight; another passenger test article is set to join RC001 in April.

The new aircraft is larger in wingspan and overall length than the airplane it replaces, the 747-400. Designed to carry 467 passengers in a nominal configuration, with 24 seats in first class, 87 in business and 356 in economy, it seats 51 more passengers than the older model. It also will carry 36 standard LD-3 freight containers in its two cargo holds, six more than the -400. The result is that even with a full passenger load, the Intercontinental should carry 37,000 more pounds of revenue cargo over a 7,000-nm-range than its predecessor.

But Boeing has faced an uphill task convincing airlines to buy this third generation of its iconic widebody. Ironically, most observers think that is not because Airbus’ double-deck A380 has taken the crown as the industry’s largest airliner, seating 525, but because so many carriers want to step down a gauge in seating. They regard Boeing’s own 777-300ER as the optimal intercontinental traveler. Its nominal 365-seat capacity is closer to what they can consistently fill on the many secondary city routes that have become common. Boeing’s 777 sales are predominantly for the -300ER. The company recently boosted production to 100 airplanes per year in 2013—8.3 per month—to keep up with demand.

This test aircraft, painted in a bright red/orange livery, will eventually be delivered to one of the eight VIP customers who have bought the 747-8I. Lufthansa will be the first to receive the passenger version. Certification and delivery are set for the fourth quarter, and Lufthansa expects to put it into revenue service in the first quarter 2012.

The first freighter is expected to be delivered to Cargolux at mid-year.

At 250 ft. long, the 747-8 is 18 ft. longer than the 747-400 and its 224-ft. wingspan is 13 ft. longer. The aircraft’s distinctive hump is longer as well, reflecting the 13 ft. Boeing inserted in the fuselage forward of the wing (with another 5 ft. aft of the wing). The freighter maintains the shorter 747-400 hump since an extension would not help in pure freight operations.

The 747-8 program is unusual in that it began with the freighter version, but that reflects the fact that in large freighters Boeing dominates air travel. Of the airplane’s 114 orders, 76 are for freighters for seven customers.

Passenger sales have been slower than Boeing expected, although it predicted that the new airplane would have wide acceptance as a freighter. Besides Lufthansa’s 20 firm orders, Boeing has picked up five each from Korean Air and Air China. Korean Air, ranked by the International Air Transport Association as the world’s biggest scheduled cargo carrier, is the only customer to order both the passenger and freighter versions. Last week, it boosted its freight order by two to seven.