One of the most imposing characters in the airspace over Europe is the fleet of Beluga aircraft which criss-cross on an ongoing basis ferrying components of aircraft being produced at nine facilities, bringing them to Toulouse or Hamburg, the two centres where Airbus has set up Final Assembly Lines for their aircraft in Europe.
The Airbus Beluga
The Airbus A300-600ST, or Beluga, is a version of the standard A300-600 wide-body aircraft, modified to carry aircraft parts and outsize cargo. It was renamed to the Beluga, the whale it resembles, and since then, the name has been officially adopted. Airbus has 5 of these aircraft, and these aircraft typically operate ferry runs sixty times a week. Operations are conducted by Airbus Transport International, a subsidiary of Airbus that specifically operates the Belugas. Sometimes, the Belugas have been used to carry special cargo, such as components of the International Space Station and helicopters.
The Airbus Beluga XL
Airbus began work to replace the Beluga with the Beluga XL back in 2014, and the first one of the Beluga XLs took to the skies in 2020. The Beluga XL is based on the Airbus A330-200 platform and was primarily constructed keeping in mind the ability to ship two A350 wings in mind, simultaneously. The Beluga XL has a broader cross-section and the ability to ship more payload in a go.
Airbus intends to fully replace the Belugas with the Beluga XL by 2025. There will be six Beluga XLs taking the spot of the 5 Beluga fleet.
Airbus to offer the Beluga as a freighter
Yesterday, Airbus announced the launch of a new air-cargo service using its unique Beluga fleet to offer freight companies and other potential customers a solution to their outsized freight transportation needs.
The new service – Airbus Beluga Transport – will provide commercially-contracted customers in various sectors, including space, energy, military, aeronautic, maritime and humanitarian sectors, with a solution to their large cargo transport needs.
The first mission already took place at the end of 2021, with delivery from Airbus Helicopters’ manufacturing site in Marignane, France, to Kobe in Japan for an undisclosed customer. Beluga #3 stopped to refuel at Warsaw (Poland), Novosibirsk (Russia) and Seoul (Korea).
Phillippe Sabo, Head of ATI and Air Oversize Transport at Airbus, said:
The Beluga’s wider cross-section will open up new markets and new logistical possibilities for customers. In the case of loading helicopters – not having to dismantle them first – really is a plus. Similarly, the largest commercial aircraft engines can be accommodated in a fully-dressed configuration.
Based on the A300-600 design, the five-strong BelugaST fleet, which has until now been the backbone of Airbus’ inter-site transportation of large aircraft sections, are being replaced by six new-generation BelugaXLs to support Airbus’ ramp-up of its airliner production.
The Beluga aircraft were designed for 30,000 flight cycles. On average, they have only flown only 15,000 flight cycles for now. They are at their midlife, so Airbus expects another 15 to 20 years of operations.
The new Airbus Beluga Transport service can cater to many possible market applications since the planes possess the world’s largest interior cross-section of any transport aircraft, accommodating outsized cargo of up to 7.1m in width and 6.7m in width height.
In the near future, once Airbus has commissioned all six new BelugaXLs, the fully-released BelugaST fleet will be handed over to a newly-created subsidiary airline with its own Air Operator Certificate (AOC) and staff.
New loading techniques and equipment are being developed for the operation to maximise Beluga’s turnaround capability for its targeted international customer base. These solutions include an automated On-Board Cargo Loader (OBCL) for missions where a loading/unloading platform is not available at the origin or destination airport.
The Beluga fleet has been fascinating, a super airplane that compares with some others to ferry equipment around the globe. It is one of the first noticeable things arriving at Toulouse airport. Now, Airbus is offering the Beluga fleet for commercial missions to other customers who might want to move outsized freight around the world.
What do you think of the Airbus Beluga fleet? Every spotted one in action?
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