Aluminium has been the standard material used in aircraft for more than a century - even the Wright brothers' famous first flight in 1903 used an aircraft made partially from the metal. But the 'aluminium age' could be about to end - with the delivery of the first large-scale commercial aircraft made using 50 per cent 'composite materials' including plastics and carbon fibre.
The much-delayed Boeing Dreamliner 787 has a range of 10,000 miles, is far quieter than ordinary jets, and is constructed using a 'moulding' process that has eliminated 1,500 aluminum sheets and 50,000 fasteners. It's also three years late - and has cost a reported $32billion.
Scott Fancher, vice president and general manager of the 787 programme, said: 'It took a lot of hard work to get to this day.'
The first Boeing 787s - delivered to All Nippon Airways - are 20 per cent more fuel-efficient than rivals, but also offer in-flight luxuries such as electrically dimmed windows.
One of the components that gives the 787 Dreamliner its extraordinary range and fuel economy - 20 per cent less than other equivalent aircraft - are its engines, hi-tech new models made by Rolls Royce.
'It is simpler than today's aeroplanes and offers increased functionality and efficiency,' says Boeing's official description of the plane. 'The team has incorporated airplane health-monitoring systems that allow the airplane to self-monitor and report systems maintenance requirements to ground-based computer systems by itself.'
'You can tell the Dreamliner is special the moment you see it coming in to land,' says Jonathan Margolis, a technology specialist who saw one of its first test flights, 'The near silence is almost spooky. But the thing which struck me most when I saw it at the Farnborough Air Show was the obvious suppleness of the composite structure. You can clearly see the wings flexing. It almost looks like an Airfix kit.'
'Speaking to the pilot later, he confirmed that as a result of its ultra-light airframe, the 787 is exceptionally manoeuvrable and easy to fly precisely.'
All passengers will enjoy hi-tech entertainment courtesy of an iPad-like Android tablet built into the back of every seat.
Boeing abandoned plans for a sound barrier-chasing 'Sonic Cruiser' a decade ago and worked on lighter long-range jets as cash-starved airlines valued efficiency over speed. Boeing expects this to become the standard for future passenger planes.
Mike Sinnett, the 787 program's chief project engineer, said: 'Technology will only get more efficient and lighter.
The plane's lighter weight allows airlines to operate routes even when the demand is insufficient for larger aircraft like the Boeing 777 or 747, or the Airbus 380 superjumbo.
Fancher added: 'For aviation we believe this is as important as the 707 was with the introduction of the jet age.
He moved to head off any fears over the new materials, stressing the tough moulded composites used to create the aircraft were nothing like ordinary plastic.
'Plastic is what you have on the dashboard of your car. This is not plastic,' he told reporters.
The 787 development program has been delayed seven times due to challenges with engineering, supply chain glitches and a 58-day labor strike in 2008.
'We have been waiting for the 787 for over 3 years as we expected it in the summer of 2008,' said senior vice president Satoru Fujiki who took part in negotiations to buy the 787.