A giant among cargo airliners: The ultimate Airbus Beluga plane

Airbus A300-600ST, aka Airbus Beluga, is a 125-tonne leviathan designed to carry outsized air cargo. Dubbed Super Transporter, the mammoth aircraft resembles a beluga whale in shape and hence named ‘Airbus Beluga.’ It is a medium-haul freight aircraft that can carry a 47,000kg typical payload over thousands of miles. The Airbus-operated Beluga planes receive red-carpet attention everywhere they fly due to their sheer size and immensity.

The iconic Airbus A300-600ST is a derivative of the versatile A300 widebody aircraft with an oversized cargo hold on top. Building on its success with the A300, Airbus derived an outsized cargo freighter from the A300 for its industrial airlift needs. Although differing substantially in appearance, the Beluga plane retains A300’s wings, engine, and landing gear design features. The leviathan plane also shares the same flight deck, but the upper part of its fuselage is distinct, with a horseshoe-shaped structure.

Background of Airbus Beluga plane

The European manufacturer Airbus developed A330-600ST to transport aircraft parts between its disparate manufacturing facilities. In the 1980s, Airbus needed to develop a new-build replacement for the aging Super Guppy fleet. The growing operating expenses of Super Guppies and increasing Airbus production pointed out the need for a new air transporter. The new airliner would take over the Super Guppy’s duties while providing the existing fleet’s greatest capacity.

In September 1992, Airbus started construction on the prospective aircraft type, which would be Airbus A300-600ST. The one-of-a-kind BegulaST first took to the skies on September 13, 1994, and was commissioned in 1995. The whale-shaped aircraft received EASA certification in October 1995 and officially began dedicated service in January 1996.

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Based on the standard A300-600, Airbus Begula was a replacement transporter for Aero Spacelines Super Guppys. The Begula plane wasn’t just the like-for-like substitute for preceding Super Guppies. The A330-600ST was larger, faster, more efficient, and could accommodate twice as much cargo by weight.

The new Airbus Begula proved excellent for Airbus’ ferrying needs, carrying airplane parts ready for final assembly across Europe. The European aerospace company has separate decentralized production facilities and final assembly plants. The construction of the entire Airbus aircraft section is dispersed among Airbus partners throughout Europe. E.g., the UK-based Airbus subsidiaries make the wings and landing gear, whereas German partners build the fuselage. Likewise, the aircraft tail and doors are made in Spain, whereas the nose and center-section manufacturing is carried out in France.

Despite the dispersion of components in various places, the final assembly of Airbus aircraft takes place in a central location. The entire aircraft section is transported from production facilities for a final assembly in Toulouse or Hamburg. The Airbus A330-600ST Beluga is instrumental in transporting Airbus components from aerospace sites to final assembly lines.

Capabilities of whale-shaped Airbus Beluga

The extraordinary Beluga cargo plane has two GE CF6-80C2 turbofan engines, each producing 257kN thrust. The plane can fly at the maximum speed of Mach 0.7 as far as 2,770km with a 40-ton payload. The fuel range of the Beluga plane increases to 4,632km (2,501nmi) when the payload capacity is 26 tons.

Airbus Begula cargo plane seats two crew at the cockpit, carrying a maximum payload of 40 tons. The A330-600ST’s quirky whale-shaped hull presents one of the most voluminous cargo holds of any in-service civil or military airliner.

The whale-shaped Airbus Beluga plane is proficient in transporting aircraft parts and oversized cargo. The efficient BelugaST easily caters to customers’ outsized freight transportation needs in sectors like aeronautics, space, military, etc. The behemoth cargo aircraft also finds its applications in the humanitarian sectors for transporting humanitarian aid and medical supplies.

Airbus A300-600ST boasts a huge main deck cargo volume that once held the world record for carrying the most voluminous payload. The Beluga plane design facilitates palletized freight and features a semi-automated main deck cargo loading system. The semi-automated CLS allows effective payload handling and minimizes manpower and loading/unloading time.

The 56.15m-long Airbus Beluga can fit in a monstrous cargo measuring up to 7.1wide and 6.7m long. On top of its main supply duties to Airbus’ production sites, it also offers large cargo transport solutions for several other companies. The legendary Beluga plane can carry oversized cargo like helicopters, chemical tanks, large painting canvases, relief supplies, space equipment, etc.

The cargo deck of the Beluga is not pressurized, so it is unsuitable for live animals. However, it is equipped with a heating module to provide a temperature-controlled conditions for sensitive payloads like satellites, paintings, etc.

How many Beluga planes are there?

The European aerospace company Airbus produced five Airbus BegulaSTs between 1992 and 1999. Over time, the Beluga has undergone several infrastructure upgrades to provide unique ways to move outsized cargo.

Operating since the mid-1990s, the BegulaST aircraft has been in reliable service for more than 20 years. With the rise in technology and Airbus production, Airbus Belugas have grown increasingly unsatisfactory for Airbus’ industrial airlift needs. So, the European aerospace giant has developed a new super transporter BelugaXL to replace the original BelugaST.

Six examples of new-generation BelugaXL versions are scheduled to replace the current BelugaST fleet by 2023.

So, there are altogether 11 Beluga planes (including 5 BelugaST and 6BelugaXL examples) produced by Airbus.

Airbus BelugaXL

The new Airbus BelugaXL (A330-743L) is a derivative of the Airbus A330 widebody airliner designed as a Beluga replacement aircraft. Airbus launched its new multi-million BelugaXL project in November 2014 and announced the design freeze in September 2015.

The new super transporter rolled off the assembly line on January 4, 2018, and made a maiden flight six and half months later. After getting type certification in November 2019, Airbus Beluga XL was officially put in dedicated service on 9Jan 2020.

The Airbus A330-based BelugaXL aircraft combines with Airbus production growth and supports the A350 ramp-up. The aircraft represents Airbus’ largest cargo model, with a maximum payload of 51 tons. The Beluga XL surpasses the existing five-member BelugaST fleet in size, capabilities, and efficiencies.

Airbus BelugaXL Number 4: Photo by Euro Spot

Airbus is set to roll out all six BelugaXL freighters for active service by the end of this year. This will mark the withdrawal of A300-600 Super Transporters and the new fleet’s takeover of their outsize cargo mission. But since the five BelugaST aircraft still have 10-20 years’ flying life left, they may serve civil or military logistic needs for another operator.

Airbus BelugaST vs Airbus BelugaXL

The preceding Airbus BelugaST is based on A300, whereas the new-generation BelugaXL is based on A330. Similarly, the A300-600ST is powered by 2 GE CFE-80C2A8 turbofans, whereas the A330-743L has two Rollys-Royce Trent 700 turbofans. The succeeding BelugaXL’s fuselage is 6.9m longer and 1.7m wide than its forerunner, resulting in 30% more capacity. BelugaXL A330-743L can carry a payload 6 tons heavier and accommodate two A350 wings instead of one. It has a cruising speed of 737 km/hr and can fly far for up to 4,300km at a maximum payload of 50,500kg.

Airbus BelugaST vs Aero Spacelines Super Guppy

Airbus BelugaST is a successor to Aero Spacelines Super Guppy, which performed its maiden flight on August 31, 1965. Like Beluga planes, these super guppies also perform the role of moving oversized cargo components. When Airbus introduced BelugaSTs in the mid-1990s, the aging Super Guppy fleet was dismissed from outsized cargo transport duties. The last Super Guppy underwent retirement on October 24, 1997.

Airbus BelugaST offers 30% more cargo volume than the preceding Super Guppy and carries more than double its payload. Likewise, the engines used in original Beluga planes are more advanced and efficient than that of Aero Spacelines Super Guppy. The 4 Allision, 501-D22C turboprop engines used in the Guppy fleet are fuel-guzzling and deliver a range of 1,734 miles.

Airbus BelugaST is a single version, whereas the other has two variants, namely B-377-SG Super Guppy and B-377-SGT Super Guppy Turbine.

Similarly, another difference between Airbus BelugaST and Aero Spacelines Super Guppy is their derivation. The former is derived from Airbus A300 and built directly from C-97J Turbo Stratocruiser’s fuselage.

(GERMANY OUT) Ein Airbus vom Typ A 300-600 ST “Beluga”. Transporter, Flugzeugtransporter, Flugzeug . (Photo by Brumshagen/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Does the Airbus Beluga still fly?

Yes, the massive whale-shaped Airbus Beluga still flies across Europe from Airbus production facilities to assembly plants. The original Beluga is still in active service with Airbus Transport International, hauling large sections of Airbus jets for final assembly. Besides, the extraordinary Beluga planes are sometimes available for commercial services (transporting bulky objects for customers). Only a few months ago, Airbus deployed one of its Beluga planes to move the I6F2 telecoms satellite from Toulouse to Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The company’s newest and largest variant BelugaXL has also joined Airbus Transport International for active service since January 9, 2020. The fleet of six BelugaXL versions is set to grace the European skies by 2023 end, flying between 11 destinations.

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