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Airbus’ Gentle Beast – The Beluga

By Rob Russell


We’ve all heard of the Beluga – that very sociable white whale, found in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of the world, or if you are a Capetonian. In this rather fancy Asian restaurant, yours truly hides in the corner, eating the Sushi special! But it’s also the name of the massive, little-known freighter Airbus uses to transport components around its various factories and manufacturing sites in Europe.

So how did this fleet of little-known aircraft become so important, and indeed a vital part of the Airbus organisation?


Due to Airbus's manufacturing facilities being dispersed all over Europe, from Spain, through France, the UK and as far away as the Norwegian countries, the company had a long-term need to transport sizeable components, such as wings and fuselage sections, to their final assembly lines. When Airbus commenced operations in 1970, large heavy-duty vehicles were initially used to move components and sections; however, growth in production volume soon necessitated a switch to air transport. This had been met by a small fleet of Aero Spacelines "Super Guppies". These aircraft were based on the military version of the 1950s-designed Boeing 377 stratocruiser, that had been converted with turbine engines and custom fuselages to carry large-volume loads for NASA's space program in the 1960s. Airbus' use of the Super Guppies led to the jest that "every Airbus is delivered on the wings of a Boeing. These aircraft were aged and increasingly maintenance-intensive to keep in operation and getting spares and engines for them was becoming prohibitively expensive.


Airbus embarked on an ambitious project to replace these aircraft. While several different existing aircraft were studied, none were found to be fully satisfactory. Instead, the company came to favour developing a derivative of its standard A300-600. In August 1991, a new joint venture company, Super Airbus Transport International (SATIC), was formed to pursue the venture. A total of five aircraft were ordered for Airbus; while additional new-build aircraft were offered to prospective operators by SATIC during the 1990s, however after keen interest from several large air freight companies, no other customers ordered the type. A key requirement of the new air transporter was the need to accommodate every major component being manufactured by Airbus, including the then-heaviest planned part, the wing of the larger Airbus A340 variants

Putting it all together – the birth of Beluga


In September 1992, construction work began on the first aircraft, the maiden flight of which took place in September 1994. Following a total of 335 flight hours being performed during the test program, restricted certification of the type was awarded by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in October 1995, enabling the A300-600ST "Beluga" to enter service shortly thereafter. Originally a total of four aircraft were to be built along with an option for a fifth aircraft being available, which was later firmed up. Apart from the first Beluga, each airframe took an average of three years to complete from start to finish; they were built at a rate of one per year. Modification work was performed at Toulouse using components provided by the Airbus assembly line

The fleet's primary task is to carry Airbus components ready for final assembly across Europe between Toulouse, Hamburg, and nine other sites, and they do so 60 times per week. The Beluga fleet is owned by Airbus Transport International (ATI), a wholly owned subsidiary of Airbus Group that was established specifically to operate the type; through this organisation, the fleet is made available for hire by third parties.

To provide access to the cargo area from the front without having to disconnect all electrical, hydraulic and flight control connections (and also avoiding the lengthy recalibrations before each flight that reconnection entailed), the standard A300 cockpit was relocated down below the cargo-floor level. By relocating the cockpit in this manner, loading times were halved from those typically achieved with the Super Guppy, which had needed to disconnect and reconnect such systems. Another reason for faster loading times was the adoption of a roll-on/roll-off loading system, as well as the ability to unload the aircraft in winds of up to 40 knots.

The qualities and improved capabilities of the Beluga resulted in the costs associated with transporting Airbus components dropping to one-third of those being incurred operating the Super Guppy. Having proven so successful in its design, with the cockpit located below and in front of the cargo area, the same concept was later used in the XL design.

The cockpit of both Beluga versions is pressurized but the cargo deck is not, making it inaccessible during flight and unsuitable for cargoes that require a pressurized environment, such as live animals. However, the cargo deck is fitted with a heating module to keep the cargo within an appropriate temperature range.

In addition to its primary supply duties to Airbus' production facilities, Belugas have often performed charter flights for various purposes. In 1997, ATI claimed that it had to reject eight out of ten requests for commercial Beluga flights, the fleet being able to spare only 130 flight hours for such duties that year. But as more Beluga aircraft were put into service, availability increased drastically, rising to 600 flight hours in 1998 and around 1,000 flight hours in 1999; this effectively enabled one of the five Beluga aircraft to spend much of its operating hours performing charter flights. Amongst the early customers chartering Beluga flights was ironically Boeing!

The Beluga becomes even bigger – the ST becomes XL!


In 2013, the five original BelugaSTs could not cope with production growth, and Airbus, having decided to increase the fleet, evaluated the Antonov An-124 and An-225, Boeing C-17 and their own Airbus A400M, before choosing to modify one of its own aircraft.


The programme was launched in November 2014 when Airbus announced that it was proceeding with the development of a larger replacement based on the Airbus A330-200, the plan being to replace the BelugaST fleet entirely by 2025. The BelugaXL entered service in 2020. Airbus previously considered the A330-300 and A340-500, but each required too much of the limited 1,663m runway at Hawarden Airport near Broughton in Wales. In May 2015, Airbus confirmed that the new aircraft would have a 1m wider cross-section than its predecessor and provide a 12% increase in payload. The BelugaXL is intended primarily for A350 work, designed to ship two A350 wings simultaneously. The first two aircraft were considered essential to facilitate mass production of the A350, while the following aircraft were to be progressively introduced as the A300-600 Beluga fleet was withdrawn

The original BelugaSTs were not to be withdrawn from service after the introduction of the Beluga XL, a mixed fleet was to operate for at least five years, as the increased production rate of single-aisle aircraft requires the ability to move more parts. The BelugaST fleet flew more than 8,000 hours in 2017, After an Airbus A350 production increase, Airbus aimed to deliver 880 aircraft in 2019, and raise A320neo output to 63 per month by 2021; the Beluga XL fleet was expanded with a sixth example in June 2023.

The aircraft's lower fuselage is assembled on the Airbus A330 final assembly line and then moved to another facility for the year-long process of assembling the upper fuselage and the lowered nose fuselage. The first section arrived in Toulouse in November 2016. The final assembly started on 8 December 2016. The first large sections: one central and two lateral rear section panels, arrived on 12 April 2017 at the Toulouse Final Assembly facility (L34) from Aernnova's factory in Berantevilla, Spain. In October 2017, 75% of the first BelugaXL structural assembly was done; with systems, mechanical, and electrical integration underway before integration of the tail elements, which had already been received. The first BelugaXL rolled off the assembly line on 4 January 2018, unpainted and without engines. After fitting its Rolls-Royce Trent 700 engines, the aircraft was used extensively on the test and certification programme. The first BelugaXL to enter service was the second aircraft built, which rolled out on 19 March 2019

With 30% more capacity than the original BelugaST, the BelugaXL can carry two A350 XWB wings instead of one. Its new fuselage is 6.9 m longer and 1.7 m wider than the original BelugaST, and it can lift a payload 6 t heavier. Its aft section is based on the A330-300, while its forward is based on the A330-200 for centre of gravity reasons, and the reinforced floor and structure are derived from the A330-200 Freighter. The A330 wings, main landing gear, and central and aft fuselage form a semi-built platform with few systems, without the aft upper fuselage, while the upper central fuselage is cut off, facilitated by the metal construction. The enlarged freight hold is mounted in three months with 8,000 new parts on the junction line.

In June 2023, the last BelugaXL (BXL) joined its five siblings at Airbus Transport International (ATI) after serving as the type’s test aircraft. ATI hopes to operate the BelugaXL for thirty years. Thanks to its unique design and clever use of the roll on/off design, the turnaround times are around 70 minutes, making for efficient use of the aircraft.

The programme’s production infrastructure – gigantic jigs and tooling – is slowly being decommissioned and committed to storage, just in case additional Beluga XLs would be needed in future.

Specifications


General characteristics


  • Capacity: 50,500 kg payload

  • Length: 63.1 m

  • Wingspan: 60.3 m

  • Height: 18.9 m

  • Wing area: 361.6 m²

  • Empty weight: 127,500 kg

  • Max takeoff weight: 227,000 kg

  • Fuel capacity: 73,000 kg

  • Fuselage diameter: 8.8 m

  • Cargo hold: 2,209 m³ volume


Powerplant: 2 × Rolls-Royce Trent 700 turbofan, 316 kN thrust each


Performance

  • Cruise speed: 398 kn, Mach 0.69 at FL350

  • Range: 2,300 nmi at max payload

  • Service ceiling: 35,000 ft



 




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