How Airbus uses “the weirdest jet in the world” to assemble its airplanes

Mar 12, 2020

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Few planes have a more appropriate name than the Airbus Beluga. If you’ve seen one, you’ll know: It looks exactly like a beluga whale, with an enormously bulbous forehead. Google “the weirdest jet in the world,” and it will show up among the top results.

But the Beluga isn’t just a crazy-looking machine: It’s a major player in the global economy.For two and a half decades, Belugas have been the logistical backbone of Airbus.

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Like all major planemakers, Airbus has a decentralized production structure, with plants in different European countries, each responsible for the completion of specific aircraft sections. Wings, for example, are made in the U.K.; fuselage sections in Germany and France; horizontal tail stabilizers in Spain. Belugas were developed from commercial jets to fly all these parts to the final assembly lines in Toulouse and Hamburg, from which completed aircraft emerge. (Boeing has a fleet of similarly unusual aircraft, the Dreamlifters, which are modified 747s.)

TPG was recently granted a rare opportunity to watch one of these fascinating freighters in action, as it arrived in Toulouse early in the morning to unload its valuable cargo of parts for A330 jets.

Unloading and loading operations are conducted inside a dedicated hangar. It is essential to operate in a sheltered location, since due to safety reasons, Belugas are unable to open their cargo doors in strong winds. The hangar is fitted with custom-designed doors, with a hole in the middle that can be adjusted to fit perfectly the fuselage of either of the two models of the Beluga  — the Beluga ST, which we saw in action, and XL. (The ST is a derivative of the Airbus A300-600, a 1970s design, and the bigger Beluga XL is based on the more recent A330 airliner.)

Right after the Beluga’s nose and frontal section are in the hangar, the cargo doors slide sideways and  the unloading can start.

(Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

The Beluga has a conveniently low cockpit, with a giant bubble mounted on top to transport parts. This makes it possible for cargo to simply be slid horizontally in and out of the Beluga’s “hump.” This is done by placing the cargo bay level with an elevated platform fitted with conveyor belts.

This time, we got to see an A330’s rear fuselage section and tail fin. Belugas can transport wings, too, but none were being carried that day.

(Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

(Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

(Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

The Beluga hangar is equipped with several parallel automated moving platforms, not unlike those found at railway yards, so cargo can be moved to the side and won’t interfere with the loading or unloading of other parts. The process is then repeated, but in reverse, with different parts disappearing slowly into the belly of the whale. This happens several times per day, pretty much year round, throughout Airbus’ network of factories. The current Beluga fleet of six aircraft (five STs and  one XL) flies 21 legs per day on average.

The covering at the end of the fuselage section in the image below, marked “Return to Hamburg,” would be sent back on the Beluga return flight, ready to be used during another airlift.

(Photo by Miquel Ros/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Miquel Ros/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Miquel Ros/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Miquel Ros/The Points Guy)

The first Beluga XL began operating in January 2020; four more will join the fleet and take the place of the STs, which have been soldiering on since the 1990s. They are a considerable improvement in terms of capacity.

The XL is capable of carrying a larger, more voluminous payload; two wings, for example, instead of one. This effectively doubles, in one stroke, the capacity available for some key operations, a major upgrade for the clockwork mechanism that, day in and day out, keeps the European planemaker running. Each Beluga XL will perform approximately 900 to 1,000 flights per year, or about 1,800 flight hours.

All photos by the author except featured photo by Eduardo Parra /Europa Press via Getty Images

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