TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) - Europe's newest passenger jet, the Airbus A350, successfully began its maiden flight on Friday.

Watched by over 10,000 employees and spectators, the sleek jet with curled wingtips took off from Airbus's Toulouse plant under cloudy skies, with a crew of six wearing parachutes and orange jumpsuits and with tons of test equipment on board.

The flight, with two British and French former fighter pilots at the controls, was expected to last four hours and caps eight years of development estimated to be worth $15 billion.

Coming three days ahead of the Paris Airshow, the long-awaited sortie is a milestone for Airbus as it battles against Boeing's 787 Dreamliner for sales of a new generation of lightweight carbon-composite jets designed to save fuel and open new long-distance routes.

(Reporting By Tim Hepher; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Mark John)

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