This Plane Looks Like No Other: Behind the Scenes With the Airbus BelugaXL

Mar 22, 2018

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On paper, it’s more or less an Airbus A330, like those you see at airports on all continents. In practice, it’s a beast that will turn heads everywhere it goes, an airplane so humongous and unusual as to make people wonder how the thing even flies. But fly it does — or it will, this summer, when Airbus plans to put in the air the first of its BelugaXL giant freighters.

The jet will be used for one single purpose: Airlift completed sections of planes between Airbus sites in the UK and continental Europe. Basically, it’s a monster cargo shuttle that brings pieces of Airbus planes from the factories where they’re built to the final assembly sites in Toulouse, France, and Finkenwerder, outside Hamburg, Germany. That’s also what Boeing does with a fleet of Dreamlifters, heavily modified 747s that ferry pieces from supplier factories around the world  to final assembly in Seattle or Charleston.

These planes need to be large enough to fit wings and significant sections of fuselages inside their cargo holds. No normal cargo jets can do this, so it makes sense for Airbus and Boeing to design and build their own. It’s brutally expensive, but it’s the most efficient way to build large passenger planes the way it’s done today, with many suppliers around the world sending parts to be assembled.

Just how weird does a plane built for this look? See for yourself. Below is a computer rendering of the BelugaXL. It becomes fairly obvious why they named it after the polar whale with a notoriously large, bulbous forehead.

We went to check out progress on the BelugaXL assembly line in Toulouse. The second one is coming along nicely.

It’s an A330-200 with massive modifications, making it longer and wider than the current Beluga, based on the smaller and older A300. The new Beluga XLs have more powerful Rolls-Royce Trent 700 engines, too.

The first BelugaXL rolled out of the factory earlier this year. Without engines and with its enormous front cargo door half open, it looked like nothing else in the skies, in this image provided by Airbus. 

The new super-transporter is also capable of lifting over six tons more than the previous Beluga. Eric Belloc, head of Beluga XL Final Assembly, admits that developing the new aircraft is challenging. “The Beluga is a very special aircraft, a symbol of Airbus,” he says.

The new BelugaXL can carry two A350 wings, as opposed to just one with the previous model. Wings will be housed side by side, and flown from Broughton, Wales, where they are manufactured, to Toulouse, France.

Here’s a look at Beluga XL number 3, the third super-transporter in final assembly. You can see the base structure, which is the fuselage of the A330. On top, the first rear arch-like piece has undergone what’s known as “fuselage join.”

Elsewhere in the hangar, engine installation was taking place on Beluga XL number two.

Here’s a video showing the installation of Engine #1, on the port (left) side.

From the rear, you can see the balloon-like fuselage, tailor-made to carry precious Airbus aircraft parts. In the image below, you may be able to obtain a sense of scale — the aircraft is truly massive.

Standing underneath and looking up, it becomes even more evident why the aircraft is named after a whale.

Five Beluga XLs will be added to an existing fleet of five Belugas, which carry 30% less payload. In service since 1996, the original Beluga — pictured below — does the same job of moving parts between Airbus production sites, but is based on the 1970s-vintage A300, the first Airbus ever made. A300s in passenger service are exceedingly rare nowadays; to find one you’d have to go to Iran, where local airlines often fly jets retired long ago in the West. UPS and FedEx still fly a lot of cargo A300-600s in the US. They look like Belugas, minus the crazy upper half.

The original Beluga at Toulouse-Blagnac airport in September, 2014. (Photo by Pascal Pavani/AFP/Getty Images)
The original Beluga at Toulouse-Blagnac airport in September, 2014. (Photo by Pascal Pavani/AFP/Getty Images)


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