Several leading large-aircraft manufacturers eventually develop a "super-heavy hauler" for transporting large aircraft components or machinery from Point A to Point B. Airbus did just that when it heavily modified its A300-600 wide-body airframe to become the "Beluga" for Airbus Transport International. First flight was undertaken on September 13th, 1994 and the aircraft was officially introduced in September of 1995. To date (January 2014), some five units have been produced and all remain active participants in Airbus operations. The aircraft can also be commissioned by third parties for specialized transport work.
The original Airbus A300-600 existed as a wide-body passenger airliner first flying in October of 1972 and adopted in 1974 with initial carrier Air France. 561 were produced from 1971 into 2007 before the series was succeeded by the A330 and A340 lines to come. This airframe proved suitable for modification into the "Beluga" heavy-hauler which was required for intercontinental transport of oversized cargo across Europe to a centralized Airbus location for final assembly. Otherwise, these components would have to be transport via land (road or rail) or sea (barge) through precisely coordinated events and limited by existing European infrastructure. An airborne heavy-hauler allowed such transport endeavors to bypass geographic and infrastructure limitations dotting the European landscape.
Initially, Airbus relied on the prop-powered, four-engined Boeing "Super Guppy" for the role but this not only damaged the emerging Airbus name as it used a direct competitor's product to help produce its own, the Super Guppy's capabilities were growing evermore limited with each passing year. This led to a consortium being formed through Deustche Aerospace Airbus and Aerospatiale to produce "SATIC" ("Special Aircraft Transport International Company") and, from this, the A300-600 was selected for modification.
All major A300-600 assemblies remained faithful to the original while the fuselage was heavily restructured with a raised spine and heightened wall sections to promote the internal volume required. Access to the overhead storage area was via a hinged, clamshell-type opening over the cockpit. This forced a larger vertical tail fin to be used due to the change in airflow and small vertical fins were also added to the horizontal planes at the tail unit for more control. The frontal fuselage received some modification as well for the cockpit and nose sections were lowered, giving the aircraft a noticeable "nose down" appearance. The aircraft retained use of the A300-600's twin turbofan engine layout, one engine was fitted in underslung nacelles to each wing, while the undercarriage was wholly retractable and made up of two four-wheeled main legs and a two-wheeled main landing gear leg. The end result was a very ugly, though highly functional, heavy-hauler in the Airbus "Beluga".
In all, the Beluga shared some 80% commonality in parts with the A300-600 series. On the whole, the cockpit remained the same as on the civilian-minded passenger airliner though it is noteworthy that only the Beluga's cockpit was given a pressurization feature - and not the cargo hold. Its internal volume allows for whole sections of A340 wings to be fitted or the whole fuselage of an A350 series aircraft - such has been the cargo capability of the new aircraft.
The initial Beluga unit was being constructed as early as September 1992 to which a period of evaluations eventually greeted the flyable prototype. Once certified in October of 1995, the aircraft was formally adopted into the Airbus inventory, allowing the company to give up use of American transports. As completed, the Beluga measured a length of 184 feet, a wingspan of 147 feet and a height of 56 feet, 7 inches. The cargo area held a diameter of over 24 feet. The airframe was cleared to with a maximum take-off weight of 155 tons with a listed empty weight of 86 tons. Power was served through 2 x General Electric CF6-80C2A8 turbofan engines allowing for a range out to 4,630 kilometers with a 25 ton load. The cockpit crew numbered the standard two pilots while the cargo handling crew (managed by a dedicated loadmaster) required a minimum of two.
The Beluga line has lent its services beyond Airbus manufacture needs as it has served the European space program when called upon and other third party-initiated transport roles. Currently, Airbus is considering an improved "Beluga XL" which is intended to promote increased hauling capabilities as well as improved operational ranges.
Boeing utilizes an aircraft of similar form and function through its "Dreamlifter", this based on the Boeing 747-400 model. The Dreamlifter is no prettier than the Beluga and takes on its own very identifiable shape. Boeing has constructed four of the type from existing 747 airframes. Introduction was in 2007.
January 2018 - The Beluga XL was unveiled at the Airbus assembly facility on January 9th, 2018.
July 2018 - The first test flight of a Beluga XL platform was recorded.
March 2018 - Two Beluga XL oversized-cargo aircraft were continuing construction at the Airbus Toulouse facility. A first-flight is planned for mid-2018 (about July). Service entry is planned for sometime in 2019.
November 2019 - EASA certification for the Beluga XL product has been awarded.
January 2020 - After delays and some 700 flying hours, the Beluga XL has formally begun flying operations with Airbus. Its first operational-level flight was recorded on January 9th, 2020. Six Beluga XLs will be used to succeed the aging fleet of in-service A300-600T airframes in same role beginning in 2021.
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